reporter's notebook

How Manafort’s Trial Resembled An Episode On HGTV

August 1, 2018 6:17 p.m.

“What is a backsplash?”

“What is a pergola?”

Any fan of “Fixer Upper,” “House Hunters,” or “Love It Or List It” knows the answers to these questions. But in case the jurors at Paul Manafort’s ongoing trial weren’t avid consumers of HGTV, or contractors themselves, the prosecutors asked witnesses these and other queries about the intricacies of Manafort-funded home improvement projects, which special counsel Robert Mueller alleges was paid for by foreign wire transfers of income Manafort earned in Ukraine but failed to report on his taxes.

Manafort has pleaded not guilty to the charges, and to the additional counts concerning bank fraud.

Day 2 of the government’s case against Manafort focused on his vendors. My colleague Caitlin told you all about the luxury items discussed in testimony. But into the afternoon we moved into the topics of real estate, landscaping and house renovations.

U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis was repeatedly annoyed with the amount of detail prosecutors were asking the witnesses to go into about their Manafort-hired projects. The prosecutors contended that they needed to establish that this was personal spending and not business expenditures that could have been deducted from Manafort’s taxes.

First up was Wayne Holland, a realtor who lived in Manafort’s neighbohood, and who had helped Manafort purchase for his daughter Andrea a $1.9 million home in Arlington, Virginia. When Holland emailed Manafort about the property — after multiple tours with the Manafort family — Paul Manafort told him to “go for it” and that “we would offer the full price.”

Next was Stephen Jacobson, a longtime general contractor for Manafort whose company, Steve’s Painting and Carpentry, was based in the Hamptons. He wore a blue polo and jeans, and spoke with a gravely voice.

He primarily managed improvements to Manafort’s home in Bridgehampton, but would do work on other properties owned by the Manafort family.

“Paul’s a tough negotiator,” Jacobson recalled, “tough but fair.”

Among the Manafort projects Jacobson worked on was a 2010 reno-job at his Hamptons house that required knocking down and reframing its walls in order to extend the dining room, and update and renovate the kitchen. The price for that renovation was $123,765, he said. Between 2010-2014, Manafort was billed for more than $3 million in projects by Jacobson, according to his testimony.

Prosecutor Greg Andres was cut off by the judge when he attempted to ask Jacobson about a pool house.

Finally we had Doug DeLuca, a landscape designer extraordinaire based here in Virginia. He was hired by Manafort to redo the yard at the house he bought his daughter. DeLuca appeared a little nervous when he first took the stand. But when it came time for him to describe his work, he seemed eager to pitch his genius to any potential local clientele in the courtroom.

“The outdoor garden concept” he said, required the demo-ing of the existing “concrete” — a word he said almost with disgust. He installed for her an outdoor kitchen using “soap stone countertops,” with a grill and other appliances. For her “outdoor living room,” he gave her an American cedar pergola, which was modeled off of the pergola in Central Park. His “art approach” incorporated “natural growth twigs,” wisteria, and other plants to create a complete “green roof” that creates “shade” and “protection.”

DeLuca sounded like he had more to tell us about this landscaping masterpiece when the judge interjected to bark at the prosecutors, inquiring “what is the virtue” of describing this in such “exquisite detail?”

“You’re done, period,” Ellis said. “Let’s move on.”

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