Thu, Aug 18, 2022 2:49 PM
By MICHAEL R. SISAK, Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — A top executive at former President Donald Trump’s family business pleaded guilty Thursday to evading taxes on a free apartment and other perks, striking a deal with prosecutors that could make him a star witness against the company at a trial this fall.
Allen Weisselberg, a senior Trump Organization adviser and formerly the company’s longtime chief financial officer, pleaded guilty to all 15 of the charges he faced in the case.
In a low, somewhat hoarse voice, Weisselberg admitted taking in over $1.7 million worth of untaxed extras — including school tuition for his grandchildren, free rent for a Manhattan apartment and lease payments for a luxury car — and explicitly keeping some of the plums off the books.
Judge Juan Manuel Merchan agreed to sentence the 75-year-old executive to five months in New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex, although he will be eligible for release after little more than three months if he behaves behind bars. The judge said Weisselberg will have to pay nearly $2 million in taxes, penalties and interest and complete five years of probation.
The plea bargain also requires Weisselberg to testify truthfully as a prosecution witness when the Trump Organization goes on trial in October on related charges. The company is accused of helping Weisselberg and other executives avoid income taxes by failing to report their full compensation accurately to the government. Trump himself is not charged in the case.
Weisselberg will remain free on bail until he is formally sentenced following the company’s trial. He said nothing as he left court, offering no reply when a journalist asked whether he had any message for Trump. If Weisselberg fails to comply with the plea terms, prosecutors said they would seek a “significant state prison sentence," and Merchan warned that he could be subject to the maximum punishment for the top charge — grand larceny — of 15 years.
Weisselberg's lawyer Nicholas Gravante Jr. said his client pleaded guilty “to put an end to this case and the years-long legal and personal nightmares it has caused for him and his family.”
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said in a statement that Weisselberg's plea “directly implicates the Trump Organization in a wide range of criminal activity and requires Weisselberg to provide invaluable testimony in the upcoming trial against the corporation.”
“We look forward to proving our case in court against the Trump Organization,” he added.
Testimony by Weisselberg could weaken the company’s defense. If convicted, the company could face fines of double the amount of unpaid taxes or potentially be placed on probation and forced to change its business practices.
The company praised Weisselberg on Thursday as a trusted, honorable employee who it said has been “persecuted and threatened by law enforcement, particularly the Manhattan district attorney, in their never-ending, politically motivated quest to get President Trump.”
In a statement, the company accused prosecutors of trying to pressure Weisselberg to cast aspersions on Trump, and of stretching to make a criminal case out of familiar executive perks such as a company car.
The company, which was not involved in Weisselberg’s guilty plea Thursday, said it has done nothing wrong, won't plead guilty and looks forward “to having our day in court.”
Weisselberg, seen as one of Trump’s most loyal business associates, is the only person to face criminal charges so far in the Manhattan district attorney's long-running investigation of the company. Weisselberg started working for the Trump Organization in 1973, when it was run by Trump’s father, Fred. Following his July 2021 arrest, the company changed his title from CFO to senior adviser. The CFO position remains vacant.
Weisselberg agreed to plead guilty days after a court hearing where Merchan denied his request to dismiss the charges. The judge rejected the defense's argument that the district attorney’s office was punishing Weisselberg because he wouldn’t offer information that would damage Trump.
The district attorney has also been investigating whether Trump or his company lied to banks or the government about the value of its properties to obtain loans or reduce tax bills.
Then-District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., who started the investigation, directed his deputies last year to present evidence to a grand jury and seek an indictment of Trump, according to former prosecutor Mark Pomerantz, who previously led the probe. But after Vance left office in January, his successor, Bragg, allowed the grand jury to disband without charges. Both prosecutors are Democrats. Bragg has said the investigation is continuing.
Prosecutors alleged that the company gave untaxed fringe benefits to senior executives, including Weisselberg, for 15 years. Weisselberg alone was accused of defrauding the federal government, state and city out of more than $900,000 in unpaid taxes and undeserved tax refunds.
Trump, a Republican, has decried the New York investigations as a “political witch hunt” and has said his company’s actions were standard practice in the real estate business and in no way a crime.
Last week, Trump sat for a deposition in New York Attorney General Letitia James’ parallel civil investigation into allegations that Trump’s company misled lenders and tax authorities about asset values. Trump invoked his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination more than 400 times.
James, whose probe uncovered the evidence that led to Weisselberg's charges, said in a statement: "Let this guilty plea send a loud and clear message: we will crack down on anyone who steals from the public for personal gain because no one is above the law.”
Associated Press writer Jennifer Peltz contributed to this report.