ALEXANDRIA, Va. (Reuters) – Prosecutors in the trial of U.S. President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort confirmed on Thursday that a key witness will be called, while the court battle’s focus shifted to the accountants who prepared Manafort’s allegedly false tax returns.
Prosecutors have spent the first two days of the trial attempting to portray Manafort as a tax cheat and a liar who hid much of the $60 million he earned from political work in Ukraine by stashing it in undisclosed overseas accounts.
The trial is the first stemming from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s 14-month investigation of Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and potential coordination between the Trump campaign and Moscow, though none of the charges against Manafort involve this issue.
- U.S. intends to call Manafort associate Gates as witness: prosecutor
A day after the prosecution raised the possibility that Manafort’s former business partner Rick Gates – expected to be a star government witness – would not be called testify, Greg Andres, a member of Mueller’s team, made clear on Thursday that he would.
“We have every intention of calling him as a witness,” Andres said in a federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, outside Washington.
Gates pleaded guilty to making false statements after being indicted by Mueller. Defense lawyers have painted Gates as an untrustworthy business partner who embezzled funds from Manafort’s consulting firm.
Manafort routed millions of dollars to the United States by putting it in real estate, and spending it on expensive suits, cars and home renovations, according to half a dozen witnesses who testified on Wednesday.
Prosecutors said Manafort evaded taxes through this scheme. Five of the 18 counts he faces relate to filing false tax returns. Manafort has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Andres said prosecutors would question the head of a landscaping firm and one other vendor on Thursday before moving on to call accountants and a “series of tax preparers” to the stand.
Heather Washkuhn, managing director of the accounting firm Nigro Karlin Segal Feldstein & Bolno, would be one of the witnesses to be called on Thursday, Andres said.
In a court filing on Thursday, Mueller’s team asked for an opportunity to further explain why Manafort’s spending was directly relevant to the charges and would not unfairly prejudice the jurors.
In a separate motion, prosecutors also asked the judge to prevent Manafort from raising the issue of an Internal Revenue Service audit, saying any potential civil action was irrelevant to the criminal charges and could confuse or mislead the jury
As part of his guilty plea, Gates acknowledged routinely dealing with accountants in the preparation of Manafort’s tax returns and misleading them with false information, although he said he did so with Manafort’s knowledge.
“It is critical for the government to show that the returns were prepared based on information of which Manafort was personally aware,” said David Axelrod, a former federal prosecutor who is now a partner at Ohio-based law firm Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick and is unaffiliated with the trial.
“The government must prove that Manafort was complicit in whatever Gates said or did,” Axelrod said.
Two witnesses – an executive at an upscale clothier and a retired general contractor – testified on Wednesday that invoices purporting to be bills from their companies to a company tied to Manafort appeared to be fake.
It was unclear who created the invoices or how they were used.
Mueller has indicted or secured guilty pleas from 32 people and three companies. Trump has repeatedly called Mueller’s investigation a witch hunt and on Tuesday called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to end it.
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