Donald Trump is facing a potentially crippling financial and political blow as state prosecutors consider charging his family business with a crime this week.
Prosecutors in New York may soon file an indictment against the Trump Organization for failing to tax lucrative perks such as use of apartments, cars, and school tuition given to top executives.
Although the 45th president is unlikely to face criminal charges, the legal saga could bankrupt his company by harming its relationships with banks and other business partners, as well as clouding his political comeback. Last Thursday, Ron Fischetti, a lawyer for the Trump Organization, held a virtual meeting with prosecutors for about 90 minutes in an attempt to persuade them not to pursue criminal charges against the company.
The long-running investigation by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance began after Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, paid hush money to two women who claimed to have had sexual encounters with Trump before the 2016 presidential election; Trump denies the claims.
Allen Weisselberg, 73, the longtime chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, the private real estate conglomerate, is now under scrutiny. Prosecutors are looking into his son Barry’s use of a Trump apartment for free or at a reduced rate, cars leased for the family, and tuition payments made to a school attended by Weisselberg’s grandchildren.
Such gifts and perks are worth tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars. If the Weisselbergs failed to properly account for that money on tax returns and other financial filings, they could face legal consequences. However, Fischetti maintains that any criminal charges based on fringe benefits would be speculative and would be a departure from precedent.
“We looked back 100 years of cases and we haven’t found one in which an employee, let alone a corporation, has been indicted for fringe benefits,” he said. “[To be a crime] it would have to be for the benefit of the corporation with the knowledge of the corporation. They don’t have the evidence at all.”
Even so, it remains to be seen whether Weisselberg will remain loyal to Trump or turn informant, potentially testifying against Trump – the company’s owner – his sons Don Jr and Eric, who are executive vice presidents, and his daughter, Ivanka.
Trump, who was defeated by Joe Biden in the election last November, has long sought to dismiss the investigation as a “witch hunt,” and he remains politically active. On Saturday, he returned to campaign rallies, stating that he plans to be heavily involved in the 2022 midterm elections and that he may run for president again in 2024. However, there are indications that the walls are closing in.
Vance has been reviewing Trump’s tax returns, subpoenaing documents, and interviewing witnesses, including Trump insiders and company executives, as part of his investigation into “possibly extensive and protracted criminal conduct.” A grand jury was recently convened to examine the evidence.
Meanwhile, New York State Attorney General Letitia James announced that she would assign two lawyers to work with Vance on the criminal investigation while continuing her own civil investigation into Trump’s business.
James’ office has been investigating whether the Trump Organization inflates the value of some properties in order to obtain better loan terms and deflates their values in order to obtain property tax breaks.
Court documents show some overlap between Vance’s and James’ separate investigations, including their interest in Seven Springs, a 212-acre estate outside of Manhattan purchased by Trump in 1995. James is looking into a $21.1 million tax break Trump received when he agreed not to develop the property after local opposition thwarted his plan to build a golf course and a separate plan to build luxury homes was shelved.
Trump’s loss of power in Washington has stripped him, his family, and his company of legal protections that he enjoyed while in the White House.
The District of Columbia attorney general’s office, for example, is suing the Trump Organization and the presidential inaugural committee for alleged misappropriation of more than $1 million for use of event space at the Trump hotel in Washington during Trump’s inauguration in January 2017.
Ivanka, a senior adviser at the White House, gave a deposition to investigators last December but is not facing criminal charges.