The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office has charged former President Donald Trump’s family business with operating a 15-year tax fraud scheme, accusing the Trump Organization of helping executives evade taxes by giving them compensation off the books. Allen Weisselberg, the company’s chief financial officer, who has worked with Trump for decades, was also charged with grand larceny for avoiding taxes on $1.7 million in perks that he did not report as income. Weisselberg surrendered Thursday and pleaded not guilty, and he could face up to a decade in prison if convicted. Legal experts suggest prosecutors targeted Weisselberg with the hope he will flip and help investigators in other ongoing probes into the former president’s company. “Donald Trump, while not named in the indictment, is all over the document in terms of actions he had to take,” says David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who has followed Donald Trump and his finances for more than 30 years. “Donald Trump and the people around him believe that they shouldn’t be subject to the law.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office has charged former President Donald Trump’s family business with operating a 15-year tax fraud scheme by helping executives evade taxes by giving them compensation off the books. The company has been charged with criminal tax fraud, falsifying business records and committing a scheme to defraud.
The chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, Allen Weisselberg, was also charged with grand larceny for avoiding taxes on $1.7 million in perks that he did not report as income. Weisselberg surrendered Thursday and pled not guilty. He could face up to a decade in prison if convicted. Many legal experts are speculating prosecutors targeted Weisselberg with the hope he’ll flip and help investigators in other ongoing probes into the former president’s company.
During arraignment Thursday, prosecutor Carey Dunne said, quote, “To put it bluntly, this was a sweeping and audacious illegal payments scheme,” he said. Prosecutors accused the Trump Organization of helping executives avoid paying taxes on fringe benefits, including cars, apartments and private school tuition.
We’re joined now by David Cay Johnston, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who’s followed Donald Trump and his taxes for more than 30 years, previously at The New York Times, now co-founder and editor of DCReport.org. His most recent book, It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America.
So, David, can you explain what these charges are about, against both Weisselberg, the CFO, and the Trump Organization, which is the Trump family business?
DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: This indictment lays out a calculated scheme, over 15 years, to pay large sums of money, $1.7 million, to Allen Weisselberg that was not included in the compensation he reported for tax purposes, also for him to claim that he did not live in New York City, when he did, which helped him evade $220,000 of New York City taxes over the period in question.
And it shows that Donald Trump, while not named in the indictment, is all over the document in terms of actions he had to take, including, in the very last count, the alteration of records just before the 2016 election to remove an indication of an illegal act.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Alan Futerfas, a lawyer for the Trump Organization, criticizing the prosecutor’s case.
ALAN FUTERFAS: People across the country, we believe, have heard of corporate apartments, have heard of corporate cars. All of this is on the books and records of the company. That’s how they know about it. And so, it’s — in my view, my personal view, it’s not appropriate. And, quite frankly, it sets a precedent. I think, in 244 years, we have not had a local prosecutor go after a former president of the United States or his employees or his company. And that is a — that is a significant line to cross.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about that line to cross. And also, he said the reason the government knows about all of this is we kept the books. But, in fact, they kept two sets of books, is that right, David?
DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: They kept two sets of books, which is, of course, a classic sign of tax fraud. The prosecutors had to go to the U.S. Supreme Court twice to get access to these records.
And fundamentally here, neither Donald Trump, in the statement he issued through the Trump Organization, or his lawyers are saying, “We didn’t do it. It’s not true.” What they’re saying is, “We’re special, and we’re privileged.”
There’s a man in Alabama serving a life sentence for stealing $9. There was a man in California sentenced to consecutive 25-year terms because he was broke and hungry and he stole a slice of pizza from some children — 55 years. And the U.S. Supreme Court said, “That’s OK. That’s a reasonable sentence.”
But Donald Trump and the people around him believe that they shouldn’t be subject to the law. “It’s OK. Everybody does this.” Everybody doesn’t do this. But what an awful position for someone who took an oath to uphold the Constitution and faithfully execute the law.
AMY GOODMAN: So, the indictment alleges that Weisselberg evaded, oh, more than $1.7 million in taxes over a period beginning in 2005. So, instead of getting, you know, direct payment that he pays taxes on, he’s getting his grandchildren’s private school paid for, he’s getting an apartment and other things. Can you talk about why this investigation took so long? And is this just a way to flip him to get to Donald Trump? And what do we know, since you’ve been investigating Trump for 30 years, about Donald Trump and his children?
DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, first of all, let me just correct something: The taxes actually come to $880,211. The $1.7 million is the income. And a big portion of it is city taxes in New York, because Weisselberg claimed not to live in the city of New York when he did.
The investigation took so long for a very simple reason: Donald Trump fought the release and examination of his records from before he was president. In fact, his lawyer, George Consovoy, told a federal judge that if Donald Trump actually shot someone on Fifth Avenue — you’ll recall he said he could do that and not lose a vote — if he actually shot someone on Fifth Avenue, the New York City police would be prohibited from investigating that murder. His position here is entirely, “I am above the law. I am special.”
Now, the Trump children are not named in the indictment, but the older three are all executives of the Trump Organization, and there’s every reason to believe that the future indictments — this is only the first indictment, not the case — will involve at some point the Trump children, and perhaps Allen Weisselberg’s son Barry, for similar crimes. And there are hints of that in this indictment.
Now, the effort by prosecutors is fundamentally to get Allen Weisselberg to break with Donald Trump after 48 years of working for Donald and his father. At this point, Allen Weisselberg, who’s about to turn 74, is a wholly owned psychological subsidiary of Donald Trump’s criminal mind. It will be very difficult for him to break with Trump. And the case currently pending, while he could get, theoretically, 15 years, there is no requirement of any sentence higher than probation. So I think it’s reasonable to expect that Allen Weisselberg and his lawyers at the moment are pondering running the risk of a trial and a conviction and then a judge simply saying, “Well, go home, sir, and report to the probation department once a month.”
That suggests there will be other charges that will have much tougher penalties. And I think the record is increasingly showing that something I’ve been saying for about a year is going to happen, that eventually there will be an indictment for New York state racketeering enterprise. The state has a RICO law, like the federal government. It requires showing three felonies. This indictment shows numerous felonies. And it would allow prosecutors to have a judge appoint a receiver to take control of the Trump Organization as a criminal enterprise.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, before we end, can you, David, talk about one of your most recent articles, headlined “DCReport Uncovers a Huge Secret Tax Favor for Super Wealthy”? And in that, tell us just who Charles Rettig is.
DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Donald Trump appointed Charles Rettig to be the commissioner of the IRS. He is the first person to hold that job who made his name and spent decades helping rich people avoid and perhaps evade taxes, and, if they got caught, negotiating secret settlements that never hit the public record for the taxes they cheated the government out of. He has said that the actual tax cap in the U.S. is more than twice the official number. It’s probably over a trillion dollars. The government doesn’t collect $3 trillion in taxes, so that makes it a huge number. And most of this is among very wealthy people who own their own businesses.
What’s happened now is that in the Trump era, they got an approval to expand the number of auditors for gift and estate taxes. And there’s plenty of evidence of massive, massive cheating in gifts and estates, after people die. But the new hires will not be lawyers. They’ll get the same pay lawyers get. Effectively, the job is being downgraded from colonels to corporals, but at colonel pay. And these new hires will simply not have the legal knowledge to take apart the complex, multilayered structures that people like Charles Rettig have created so that billions of dollars appear to the IRS to be mere pennies.
The Biden administration could stop this with one phone call. This whole scheme is based on the Trump administration’s legal advice that you can’t hire any more lawyers to do this work. All they have to do is undo that decision. I’ve repeatedly emailed the White House. They told me they didn’t know anything about this, which isn’t surprising. This is a scheme we uncovered. But they haven’t gotten back to us about whether President Biden will, or his staff will, see to it that this is at least stopped until they understand what’s going on, and hopefully permanently stopped, because it’s just a big giveaway to the most aggressive efforts by people and their lawyers to avoid taxes, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, David Cay Johnston, we thank you for being with us. We’re going to link to that article at democracynow.org. David Cay Johnston, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, co-founder and editor of DCReport.org. The exposé, “DCReport Uncovers a Huge Secret Tax Favor for Super Wealthy.” His most recent book, It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America.
Coming up, we go to Minnesota to look at the Indigenous-led resistance to block the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline. Stay with us.