(CN) – The trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort opened Tuesday with prosecutors working for Special Counsel Robert Mueller accusing the one-time, high-flying political consultant with putting “himself and his money above the law” while flouting tax and banking regulations.
“A man in the courtroom believed the law did not apply to him, not the tax laws, not the banking laws,” prosecutor Uzo Asonye said. “That man is the defendant, Paul Manafort.”
Manafort faces 32 separate charges of fraud and conspiracy related to allegedly hiding tens of millions of dollars in income from consulting work in the Ukraine. Manafort has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges against him.
“All of these charges boil down to one simple issue — that Paul Manafort lied, ” Asonye said.
Asonye went on to tell the jury that Manafort opened more than 30 overseas accounts in three countries to “receive and hide” the money funneled he used to pay for a lavish lifestyle and such perks as a $21,000 watch and a $15,000 jacket made of ostrich.
The defense team opened its case by first claiming the unusual financial arrrangements Manafort made were done at the behest of his Ukranian employers.
Defense attorney Tom Zehnle said Manafort’s failure to file certain forms and make specific declarations were not criminal acts, but simply a matter of his not understanding his obligations.
“Mr. Manafort was not responsible for setting up the Cyprus accounts. The Party of Regions in Ukraine, [one of Manafort’s clients] required him to do this because if he was getting paid, this was the way they required it be done,” Zehnle said.
Funding had to be concealed in this way because of political tensions in the country and Manafort wasn’t “trying to mislead the IRS.”
“The people paying his bills told him to do this. Manafort did not do this,” Zehnle said.
“This is not a case where someone flew to Switzerland and stashed money in an account,” he said. “This case is about taxes and trust. It’s about taxes because Mr. Manafort has been charged with supplying false tax returns and because he failed to check a box on his tax returns.”
“It’s about trust because Mr. Manafort consulted his employees to handle his bank and tax documents and trusted them to do what was right,” Zehnle said.
Zehnle, after asking Manafort to stand and proclaiming that he was “honored” to represent his client, told jurors that Manafort “shouldn’t even be here.”
“He didn’t intentionally mislead [the government] about his bank accounts nor was there a conspiracy [to set up fraudulent] loans. Bankers were aware of his assets and they wanted to loan him money,” the attorney said.
Zehnle said his client’s innocence would be proven once they heard testimony about his “voluntary” interactions with the FBI in 2014. That was the year he willingly provided financial records to the agency when they questioned him about why some of his money flowed offshore.
“If you ask yourself one thing, ask, how can someone who reports that he earned $27 million in 2014 willfully and intentionally going to mislead the government? We’re here because of Rick Gates and Special Counsel’s arguments rest on that star witnesses’ shoulders, the attorney said.”
Zehnle also tried to shift blame to Manafort’s ex-deputy Rick Gates, who cut a plea deal and is cooperating with the government.
“The foundation of the special counsel’s case rests squarely on the shoulders of Rick Gates,” the attorney said, before going on to claim Gates blatantly stole from his one-time friend.
“Rick Gates had his hand in the cookie jar and he couldn’t take the risk that his boss might find out,” Zehnle claimed. “He embezzled millions of dollars from his longtime employer. He abused his position of trust.”
But according to prosecutor Uzo Asonye, “There is only one man in this courtroom who thinks the law doesn’t apply to him: Paul Manafort.”
“The evidence will show that he used shell companies to funnel millions of dollars into the United States and will show that from 2010 to 2014, he spent secret income on luxury items likes cars and clothes; that he paid $6 million cash for one house and $2 million just to renovate a property in Florida. He purchased a 10 bedroom house in the Hamptons. He got whatever he wanted. But it’s not about what he did with the cash but that he failed to do what every other American does: pay taxes.”
There’s nothing wrong with being successful, Asonye told jurors.
But when filing taxes, the information provided is made under penalty of perjury.
False statements made on tax forms from 2010 through 2014 show an illegal pattern of behavior, prosecutors said.
“He submitted fake documents, backdated business records. He even faked an insurance binder and you’ll see that many of the people who worked for him sprung into action whenever he asked them [to create the documents or falsify them,” Asonye said.
Manafort found his “golden goose” in Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, Asonye said.
But when the lobbying work he performed for Yanukovych dried up, he turned to fabricating bank loans to supplement his billion-dollar lifestyle.
He lied to his accountants when they asked him about whether he had foreign bank accounts set up.
“He opened 30 of them and on every federal tax return, where the form asks, do you have signatory authority over a foreign bank account that you control, even if not in your name … Mr. Manafort answered no to that question year after year,” Asonye said.
Manafort not only lied to authorities and he lied to his bookkeepers, he added.
“To keep his hands clean, he used his associates to help him. Where he did use an intermediary, he directed their activities. As the old adage goes, just follow the money,” Asonye said.
Longtime political strategist Tad Devine was the first witness called to testify against Manafort Tuesday.
Devine peeled back some of the layers behind his work with the former Trump campaign chairman, telling prosecutors that in 2014, Richard Gates asked him to fly to Ukraine and meet with onetime members of the Party of Regions.
They wanted to start a new political party known as the Party of Development. Devine raked in considerable profit for his work with Manafort during this, according to exhibits produced by prosecutor Greg Andres.
On one invoice from June 2014, Devine charged Manafort’s firm, Davis Manafort International, $10,000 per day for his services.
The relationship was a success so much so that Devine told prosecutors Gates reached out again that year in hopes he would help strategize a presidential bid for Petro Poroshenko. Poroshenko is now the current president of Ukraine.
Devine said he never ended up working on the project personally, but it seemed Manafort’s team was “trying to put something together.”
Describing his relationship with Manafort as a “very close” one, Devine said he joined Manafort and the Yanukovych campaign to help design TV spots, write speeches and perform other political consulting work.
Prosecutors tried to unravel the chain of command at Davis Manafort International, asking Devine who he thought was in control of the company while he was being paid for his services.
“Paul was in charge. Rick worked for Paul,” Devine said.
This piece of testimony runs contrary to the core argument defense attorneys presented Tuesday suggesting that Manafort was an absentee-owner of the company who left the bulk of operational and financial responsibilities up to Rick Gates.
On cross examination, defense attorney Richard Westling kept his questioning brief and focused on the nature of the work Manafort and he performed for the Party of Regions.
“Was he doing good work in Ukraine? Was it really his strategy to open Ukraine to Western democracies?” Westling said, referencing a position Manafort’s attorneys have long held when discussing their client’s work with Yanukovych.
“He was. I was happy to be a part of that project,” Devine said.
Manafort was one of the hardest workers on the campaign, he added.
Just as trial ended for the day, Westling asked Devine one last question.
“Political consulting can be a lucrative field, can’t it?” Westling asked Devine
“Yes,” he said. “When the clients pay.”