Allen Weisselberg, the Chief Financial Officer of the Trump Organization, surrendered himself to the Manhattan DA’s office early on Thursday morning after being indicted by a grand jury the previous afternoon. He pleads not guilty to tax fraud charges and was immediately released without bail. The charges involve an alleged failure to pay income taxes over a 15-year period; they include schemes to defraud, conspiracy, grand larceny, and falsifying business records. At first blush, this sounds serious – and for Mr. Weisselberg and his family, I’m sure it is. However, when we look a little closer, two things become apparent. First, this is obviously a politically motivated which-hunt and a failed one at that. Second, this story is emblematic of the pervasive political corruption that is eroding away the cherished institutions of our nation.
The case was brought by long-time Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance Jr., a very high-profile New York attorney. Vance Jr., a Democrat (D.A. is an elected position in New York) and the son of former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance Sr., who served under President Jimmy Carter. Older Americans may recall senior Vance’s involvement in the Iranian hostage crisis. He was known to be friendly toward both the Soviet Union and the Chinese Communist Party, often clashing with the more moderate National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, father of liberal current MSNBC pundit Mika Brzezinski. Vance Sr. famously attempted to negotiate with Ayatollah Khomeini through back-channels of the PLO, behind the backs of the Carter administration, a stunt that failed miserably, embarrassed the nation, and ultimately ended in Vance Sr.’s resignation as Secretary of State. He was only the third man in history to resign from that coveted position, after Lewis Cass and William Jennings Bryant. The junior Vance seems to share his father’s propensity for political stunts.
Vance Jr. and New York Attorney General Letitia James have been investigating former President Donald Trump (in his personal capacity), the Trump Organization, and anyone connected with them for the better part of three years now. “Going after Donald Trump” was the keystone of James’ campaign to win that job. Vance Jr. on the other hand is on his way out; he has stated publicly that he will not seek reelection at the conclusion of his third (and current) term. At age 67, this is likely the end of the line for Vance Jr.’s career in public office, and that’s an important point because if you are going to do something controversial, you may as well do it on your way outdoor. This is the backdrop behind the Weisselberg charges.
After years of investigation and mountains of document production, including a trip to the Supreme Court to obtain Donald Trump personal tax returns, these highly partisan and very powerful prosecutors were only able to bring charges for failure to pay income tax on Weisselberg’s behalf, for certain fringe benefits that prosecutors claims should have been reported as income. Those benefits span a 15-year period and include two Mercedes-Benz leases, use of a company-owned apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, tuition payments for two minors (presumable grandchildren of Weisselberg), and a handful of smaller expenses. That’s it – after years of investigation (at taxpayer expense) that’s all they came up with.
I have not yet reviewed the details of the indictment and I offer no analysis of whether or not the fringe benefits in question ought to have been reported as income. However, as a New York attorney myself, having dealt with similar tax issues on several occasions, I can tell you that this behavior by prosecutors is highly irregular. A fringe benefit that is alleged to be wrongly “undeclared” is typically investigated by the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance (DTF). If that agency determines the taxpayer wrongly failed to pay tax, they will assess a tax bill, along with interest and penalties. It is entirely a civil matter. If the DTF suspects that the taxpayer knowingly and willfully defrauded the State, they may refer the case to the NYS Office of Attorney General to consider prosecution. That virtually never happens in cases involving fringe benefits like this, simply because it is entirely reasonable for the taxpayer to claim they didn’t know the benefits were taxable. It’s extraordinarily difficult to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the taxpayer knowingly broke the law when even highly experienced tax attorneys offer differing opinions of whether or not the benefits at issue were actually taxable. I’m not alone in my assessment of this case. Numerous attorneys have spoken out with similar criticism, for example, Harmeet K. Dhillon, who tweeted Thursday:
The fact that this case was ultimately brought by a County DA (Vance Jr.), as opposed to the State DA, is even more bizarre – but when viewed through the lens of politics, it actually makes sense. Letitia James, the NYS Attorney General should have been the prosecutor to bring the case (if it had to be brought at all) but James is young, with a long political career ahead of her. Surely James, Vance Jr. and the rest of the Democrat power-brokers involved in this hit job are aware that this case is risky business, and ultimately that is why I believe the decision was made to have Vance Jr. bring the case at the County level rather than the James at the more-appropriate State level. Vance Jr. has nothing to lose – he is on the way out anyway.
So here we are. Allen Weisselberg, a 73-year-old man who has loyally served his employer for 48 years, was handcuffed and paraded in front of the cameras Thursday. Despite having immediately turned himself in upon indictment, the DA’s office made a point to handcuff him, take him down to the lobby, escort him around the front of the building, past the sea of reporters who had been tipped off ahead of time, and then back into the parking garage under the building, just to go back up the elevator and right back to the office they started in. It’s called a “perp walk” and it’s done to unconstitutionally strengthen the prosecutor’s bargaining position by contaminating the potential jury pool with prejudice from the court of public opinion.
It seems Vance Jr. is attempting to “squeeze” Weisselberg – leveraging the possibility of favorable treatment or even full immunity from the tax fraud charges if he offers some useful information that can be used against his long-time boss, Donald Trump. Weisselberg immediately entered a not guilty plea. Given the long term nature of his relationship with the Trumps, his own wealth and access to white-shoe legal representation as well as the utterly ridiculous nature of the case itself, I expect that Weisselberg will call the bluff of Vance Jr. and refuse to cooperate. Of course, it’s easy for me to say that – I’m not facing jail time. Nevertheless, Trump will prevail here. Weisselberg may indeed have to pay some back-taxes but it is highly unlikely that he is convicted of a crime here, and even less likely that this turns into the ‘gotcha’ moment for Donald Trump that this whole exercise was intended to be. In fact, it is likely to backfire because it is such a transparent and flagrant abuse of the criminal justice system as a means to achieve political ends.
From a political standpoint, this is likely to be viewed as an enormous failure by Cyrus Vance Jr. – comparable with his father’s failure to secure the release of American hostages in Iran by foolishly trusting the PLO and the Soviets back in the 70s. Vance Jr.’s current blunder will prove to be far more damaging to the country in the long run. In either case, it should end in the same manner as his father’s disgraceful political stunt – with his resignation.