In Opening Statement, Mueller Team Paints Manafort As Acting Above The Law

TPM Illustration. Photos by Getty Images/Tom Williams/ BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI

In the opening statement for the Virginia trial of former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, a federal prosecutor painted Manafort as a man who knowingly lied to the government and acted as though he were above the law.

“A man in this courtroom believed the law did not apply to him,” said Uzo Asonye, a member of special counsel Robert Mueller’s prosecution team, referring to Manafort.

Asonye told the jury that the special counsel’s case will prove that Manafort failed to report $15 million in income to the U.S. government by funneling money directly from foreign bank accounts to vendors, misleading his bookkeeper and tax preparers, and by claiming the income was a loan. Asonye said that the government’s case will also show that Manafort misled financial institutions in order to obtain loans after his work in Ukraine dried up.

“All of these charges boil down to one simple issue: Did Paul Manafort lie,” Asonye told the jury.

Manafort was indicted on multiple counts of bank and tax fraud arising from his work for the former pro-Russian regime in Ukraine. He has pleaded not guilty. Manafort is the first person to be tried as part of Mueller’s sprawling investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 elections.

Before laying out the government’s case in more detail, Asonye described Manafort’s lifestyle while he was working for Ukrainian political leaders until 2014, noting that Manafort spent the millions he earned on luxury items. Among the goods Manafort allegedly bought with this money, according to Asonye, was a $21,000 watch and a $15,000 jacket made out of ostrich.

At this point, U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis jumped in to note that it’s not a crime to be rich and implored Asonye to focus on how Manafort allegedly broke the law.

Asonye then noted that Manafort did not “pay the taxes he owed” to the government by filing false tax returns and began to give the jury more detail on Manafort’s alleged actions.

“The evidence will show that Paul Manafort placed himself and his money above the law,” Asonye said.

He alleged that Manafort had more than 30 foreign bank accounts but knowingly lied to the government about the accounts. Asonye said that the jury will hear from vendors who received wire transfers directly from the foreign accounts and from Manafort’s bookkeeper who allegedly did not receive the correct information on Manafort’s finances.

The prosecutor accused Manafort of disguising his income as if it were loans. These “sham” or “bogus” loans helped Manafort avoid paying taxes on it, Asonye said.

After laying out the government’s case for tax fraud, Asonye moved on to the bank fraud charges, alleging that Manafort lied on loan applications when he started running out of cash.

“He literally created cash out of thin air,” Asonye said, referring to Manafort’s loan applications and allegedly doctored financial statements.

Asonye emphasized that while Manafort delegated much of the work in furthering this alleged scheme to his associates, Manafort gave constant directions and received regular updates.

“None of this happened by accident,” Asonye said, adding that the government’s evidence “will establish that Paul Manafort” lied to his bookkeeper, his tax preparer, the IRS, and financial institutions.

Jury selection in the case began Tuesday morning and moved swiftly. By early afternoon, a jury was seated and opening statements began. The prosecution is now expected to begin putting on its case before the end of the day.

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