Manafort Previews His Defense: It’s Rick Gates’ Fault

TPM Illustration. Photos by Getty Images/ Mandel Ngan/ AFP Contributor

ALEXANDRIA, VA —Delivering his opening statement at the Virginia trial of former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, his defense attorney targeted Manafort’s longtime business deputy Rick Gates for allegedly “abusing” Manafort’s trust and accused him of embezzling millions of dollars from his former employer.

“Rick Gates violated one of life’s most basic rules: when you’re in a hole, stop digging,” attorney Thomas Zehnle said.

His 30-minute opening statement painted Manafort as a successful but busy global consultant who trusted Gates and other outside professionals to handle the day-to-day operations of his business, including its finances.

“Unfortunately for Paul Manafort, his trust in Rick Gates was misplaced,” Zehnle told the jury.

Manafort is facing charges of bank fraud and tax fraud. He has pleaded not guilty. In his opening statement, prosecutor Uzo Asonye: “All of these charges boil down to one simple issue: Did Paul Manafort lie?”

Gates was originally a co-defendant in the case, until reaching a plea deal with special counsel Robert Mueller in February. He is expected to testify against Manafort in the trial.

Zehnle accused Gates of having an “evolving” story about his dealings with Manafort, and pointed out that as part of his plea agreement, he pleaded guilty to making a false statement to the prosecutors during plea negotiations.

“The foundation of the special counsel’s case rests squarely on this witness,” Zehnle said.

In Zehnle’s retelling it was Gates who was the point person for Manafort’s book-keepers and tax preparers.

“Little did Paul know that Rick was lining his own pockets,” Zehnle said.

Gates misled the outside accountants, Zehnle said, because “he had his hands in the cookie jar,” and couldn’t let anyone know.

Among the government’s allegations is that Manafort failed to disclose to the government foreign bank accounts, through which flowed money Manafort made doing lucrative consulting in Ukraine work. Zehnle said Manafort was not responsible for how or why those foreign bank accounts were set up, but was required by the Ukrainian backers paying his consulting bills that he be paid this way.

Of Manafort’s Ukraine endeavors, where he advised the pro-Russian Party of Regions and ex-President Victor Yanukovych, Zehnle said the “focus” of Manafort and his associates efforts “was to bring the country closer to western democracy.”

As for Mueller’s bank fraud allegations, Zehnle said that Manafort was “open” with the outside professionals who helped to facilitate loans, about why he was seeking the money and what he planned to spend it on. He said that Manafort was in the process of paying back the loans, before Mueller brought charges against him and his assets were seized.

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