‘My God, this is some street-level mobster stuff’: Lawyers on what we know now about the Trump Organization

·5-min read
The Trump Organization’s Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg appears in court in New York, Thursday, July 1, 2021. Weisselberg was arraigned a day after a grand jury returned an indictment charging him and Trump’s company with tax crimes. Trump himself was not charged.   (AP)
The Trump Organization’s Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg appears in court in New York, Thursday, July 1, 2021. Weisselberg was arraigned a day after a grand jury returned an indictment charging him and Trump’s company with tax crimes. Trump himself was not charged. (AP)

Shortly after representatives of the Trump Organization and the company’s Chief Financial Officer, Allen Weisselberg, finished entering “not guilty” pleas in response to a 15-count indictment for tax fraud, attorney Susan Necheles stepped up to a bank of microphones. She then repeated the line her ultimate client — the former president of the United States — has been using for more than five years: “This case is truly unprecedented — the attorney general’s office and the district attorney’s office brought a joint prosecution because they dislike Donald Trump politically.”

It’s a line Trump uses any time anyone makes any attempt to hold him to the law’s boundaries. From his repeated claims that ex-Special Counsel Robert Mueller employed “18 angry Democrats” to probe whether his 2016 presidential campaign had received help from the Russian government, to the various claims of “witch hunt!” anytime a Congressional committee made the slightest request of him or his administration, Trump has made a habit of reducing any charge made against him, his family, or any of his allies to mere politics. And to hear his attorneys on the day his eponymous company was indicted, one might be tempted to wonder whether this latest prosecution was something extraordinary. After all, the defendant is a company owned by a former president, so it must be a special case, right?

Not so much.

While Trumpworld — and to be fair, much of the media — is waxing lyrical about how unprecedented it is for a former president’s company to face criminal charges, experts are describing the allegations laid out in the 24-page indictment as anything but. Instead, they compare the charges to that which would be filed against your garden-variety fraudster.

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One experienced New York lawyer — a former prosecutor who once worked under Attorney General Letitia James — was aghast at the base nature of the crimes Trump’s eponymous corporation has been accused of committing.

“As I was reading the indictment, the one thing I kept thinking was: ‘My God, this is some street-level mobster bulls**t,’” they said. “Two sets of books? That’s like ‘how to commit tax fraud 101’ at crime college.”

While many extremely online liberal commentators have long expected a Trump Organization indictment to include counts for exotic and rarely charged financial crimes, the 15-count indictment against Weisselberg and the Trump Organization lays out a relatively simple scheme. According to prosecutors, the company allegedly kept a separate set of financial records (an “internal spreadsheet”) that detailed funds used to pay for Weisselberg’s rent, car payment, and other personal expenses, but which were different than the records used to prepare tax returns for him and the company.

It’s a scheme that experts say has been used by countless defendants in countless tax fraud cases. And while Trump’s lawyers call the charges “unprecedented,” they would’ve been quite familiar to his most famous lawyer, the late Roy Cohn.

In the late 1970’s, Cohn defended Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager — the owners of New York’s Studio 54 nightclub (a famous Trump hangout) — against charges that they’d evaded taxes by skimming cash from the nightclub’s registers and keeping two separate sets of receipts: one that showed the whole amount of cash taken in each night, and one with the lesser amount which they used for tax purposes.

Nick Akerman — a former federal prosecutor who worked in the US Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York at the time Rubell and Schrager were prosecuted — said the scheme used by the Trump Organization and Weisselberg is similar to the one used by the infamous nightclub owners, as well as a large number of crooked restauranteurs who he prosecuted on the same kinds of charges.

“I had this whole operation going against restaurants in New York City — I had agents posing as buyers of restaurants who would go in and negotiate with restaurant owners to buy the restaurants, and they’d be shown the second set of books,” he recalled.

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Akerman said the second set of books — the Trump Organization’s “internal spreadsheet” — was instrumental in proving fraud: “The real books were to show a buyer, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to show how well the restaurant was really doing in order to get top dollar for it. Bottom line, this is criminal behavior, whether your name is Steve Rubell or Donald Trump.”

“This is not anything extraordinary in the sense of the tax violations, at least in terms of what I’ve seen in New York City as a prosecutor,” he continued. “I can’t say this is the tax crime of the century, by any means. But the fact that this was done in such a systematic way — with a second set of books — by a guy who had the gall to run for president of the United States with this in his background is absolutely mind-blowing.”

Ultimately, Akerman predicted that the charges against both the Trump Organization and Weisselberg would force the former president to choose between protecting his company and blaming Weisselberg, a decision that could end up forcing his long-time employee into the arms of the Manhattan DA’s office.

“This indictment is absolutely brilliant in the sense that it really puts Donald Trump between a rock and a hard place. To save his company, he has to blame Weisselberg for this 15-year tax fraud scheme that’s perpetrated with the second set of internal records, but by doing so, he’s going to risk antagonizing him into becoming a songbird for the government,” he said. “They’re absolutely f***ed.”

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