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Trump finance chief pleads guilty to 15 counts of tax fraud

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By Euronews  with AP
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The Trump Organization's former Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg leaves from court, Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022, in New York.
The Trump Organization's former Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg leaves from court, Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022, in New York.   -   Copyright  AP Photo

The man who ran the financial side of Donald Trump's business empire -- longtime lieutenant Allen Weisselberg -- has pleaded guilty to 15 counts including tax fraud and larceny.

Weisselberg, 75, took the deal on Thursday and could potentially be the star witness against the Trump Organization in a trial over what prosecutors say was a “sweeping and audacious” scheme by the company to help top executives, including Weisselberg, avoid taxes on perks like luxury cars and rent-free apartments.

Federal authorities said Weisselberg, the Trump Organization's longtime chief financial officer, failed to pay taxes on more than $1.7 million worth of compensation.

Among those perks: The Trump Organization paid the rent on his Manhattan apartment; covered private school tuition for his grandchildren; leased Mercedes-Benz cars for him and his wife; gave him cash to hand out as holiday tips; and paid for flat-screen TVs, carpeting, and furniture for his winter home in Florida.

Weisselberg’s son also didn’t have to pay rent, or paid below-market rent, while living in Trump-owned apartments.

Weisselberg is still employed by the Trump Organization, but his title was changed to senior adviser after the July 2021 indictment. This week his lawyers said it was time to put an end to the yearslong “legal and personal nightmares it has caused for him and his family.”

The Trump Organization seemed to have no hard feelings, calling Weisselberg a “fine and honourable man” who has been “harassed, persecuted and threatened by law enforcement".

What happens to Trump's adviser now?

A judge has agreed to sentence Weisselberg to five months at New York's infamous Rikers Island jail complex. With good behaviour, he'll be eligible for release after little more than three months.

He'll also have to pay nearly $2 million and spend five years on probation. Crucially, though, he must testify truthfully when the Trump Organization goes on trial in October.

Weisselberg won't be formally sentenced until after the trial. Until then, he remains free on bail.

For its part, the Trump Organization said it had done nothing wrong and would “look forward to having our day in court”.

Both Weisselberg and the Trump Organization initially pleaded not guilty to the charges, maintaining that the perks were standard for companies and the investigation was politically motivated.

Weisselberg's agreement to testify, though, could substantially harm the company's defence. That could increase pressure for it to resolve the case without a trial.

The Trump Organization is a business entity through which Trump manages his many entrepreneurial affairs, including his investments in office towers, hotels and golf courses; his numerous marketing deals and his television pursuits. It runs golf clubs and hotels, collects money from companies renting offices, and charges licensing fees to buildings and others for bearing the Trump name.

In a statement, the company said it had done nothing wrong and would “look forward to having our day in court."

AP
Donald Trump claps during the final remarks during Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas, on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022.AP

Judge could unseal Trump warrant affidavit

Meanwhile, a federal judge on Thursday ordered the Justice Department to put forward proposed redactions as he committed to making public at least part of the affidavit supporting the search warrant for former President Donald Trump's estate in Florida.

US Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart said that under the law, it is the government's burden to show why a redacted version should not be released and prosecutors' arguments Thursday failed to persuade him. 

He gave them a week to submit a copy of the affidavit proposing the information it wants to keep secret after the FBI seized classified and top secret information during a search at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate last week.

The hearing was convened after several news organisations, including The Associated Press, sought to unseal additional records tied to last week’s search, including the affidavit. It is likely to contain key details about the Justice Department’s investigation examining whether Trump retained and mishandled classified and sensitive government records.

The Justice Department has adamantly opposed making any portion of the affidavit public, arguing that doing so would compromise its ongoing investigation, would expose the identities of witnesses and could prevent others from coming forward and cooperating with the government.

The attorneys for the news organisations, however, argued that the unprecedented nature of the Justice Department's investigation warrants public disclosure.

“You can't trust what you can't see,” said Chuck Tobin, a lawyer representing the AP and several other news outlets.

In addition to ordering the redactions, the judge agreed to make public other documents, including the warrant's cover sheet, the Justice Department's motion to seal the documents and the judge's order requiring them to be sealed.

Those documents showed the FBI was specifically investigating the “willful retention of national defence information,” the concealment or removal of government records and obstruction of a federal investigation.