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Trump Organiazation's ex-CFO is on the stand for another day at tax fraud trial

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

One day after Donald Trump declared another run for president, one of his longtime aides began testimony in a trial. He's the former chief financial officer of the Trump Organization.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Allen Weisselberg already pleaded guilty to felony tax charges. And now a Manhattan jury is hearing his testimony to decide whether the Trump Corporation is also guilty of criminal fraud.

INSKEEP: NPR's Andrea Bernstein has been covering the trial. Andrea, good morning.

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK. What is the case that Weisselberg is discussing on the stand?

BERNSTEIN: This is the trial over whether the company broke criminal laws by paying Weisselberg and other top executives with untaxed benefits. Here's the way it worked. So Weisselberg collected a salary and paid taxes on his W-2 form. But on top of that, he also got a set package of luxury items that he didn't pay taxes on - a Mercedes-Benz for him and his wife, furniture, electronics, private school tuition for Weisselberg's grandchildren. And the company tracked those payments in a spreadsheet, backed the amount of his compensations and did not report them to the government.

Donald Trump, the man, is not criminally charged. And his company's lawyers say Weisselberg did it for Weisselberg. What's at issue here is whether Trump's company also benefited from this scheme to cheat taxpayers. And prosecutors need to prove that Weisselberg just wasn't like a bank teller stuffing money in his pockets, but as a high managerial agent acting on behalf of the company as well.

INSKEEP: Well, what has he said so far on the stand?

BERNSTEIN: He spoke from the witness stand in a clear, kind of growly voice, really like the accountant from Central Casting. We heard him go over checks and payments made for his two-bedroom luxury condo with a terrace overlooking the Hudson and related expenses, like cable and parking. The prosecutor asked him directly who authorized the payments. And he said the rent was authorized by Donald Trump. Weisselberg also noted that beginning in 2012, Trump personally paid checks for Weisselberg's grandchildren's tuition. And he admitted when that happened, he knew that taxes were owed but not being paid.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm trying to figure this out. If prosecutors want to show this wasn't just one guy on the take but it was a system, what is the benefit to the Trump Organization, the larger company of this scheme, if any?

BERNSTEIN: So Weisselberg was asked directly. Why didn't he just get a raise from the company? And he explained if he got $200,000 in unpaid benefits, he would have needed twice the salary - or $400,000 - to cover his taxes. The prosecutor asked him, did the Trump Corporation save the extra money when he got what you call the gross-up amount, if they had to pay him that? And Weisselberg said, yes. You could say that. If the company had to give me all this in cash, they would have had to pay me more. One more thing. This method of compensation ended in 2017 when Trump became president. And Weisselberg did get a raise in his salary then.

INSKEEP: Just to be clear, is Weisselberg still on Trump's payroll?

BERNSTEIN: Yeah. He testified to this. After he was criminally charged, he still went to work, changed his title. After he pleaded guilty, he went on a paid leave. So he's still getting $640,000, maybe a bonus, from the company he's testifying against.

INSKEEP: The former president declared that he's running for a third time for president just this week. People wonder, does that change the status at all of the various investigations or even this trial?

BERNSTEIN: In a word, no. When Trump became president, he was able to delay some legal matters by claiming presidential immunity. But now, though he's a candidate, he's still an ordinary citizen. In fact, in the New York civil case, which is another case in New York, the issue of political motivation has already come up before a judge. And the judge has said what matters are the facts and the law.

INSKEEP: NPR's Andrea Bernstein. Thanks.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrea Bernstein
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.