ALEXANDRIA, Va. (Reuters) - Paul Manafort had “a huge dumpster of hidden money” abroad, a prosecutor said on Wednesday, urging a jury to convict U.S. President Donald Trump’s former campaign chief on financial fraud charges based more on a paper trail of evidence than on the testimony of a former protege.
Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Andres gave his closing statement in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, where Manafort is on trial on tax and bank fraud charges, along with failing to disclose foreign bank accounts.
The jury is expected to begin deliberating on a verdict on Thursday morning.
The trial is the first to come out of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. The charges involve tax and bank fraud, not possible collusion between Russia and Donald Trump’s campaign for president.
A Manafort conviction would undermine efforts by Trump and some Republican lawmakers to paint Mueller’s Russia inquiry as a political witch hunt, while an acquittal would be a setback for the special counsel.
The star witness against Manafort was seen as Rick Gates, his former right-hand man, who was indicted along with Manafort but pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the government.
The defense has portrayed Gates as a lying thief who had his hand in the “cookie jar” and was only trying to reduce his own sentence, noting Gates will be allowed to argue for probation even though he admitted to embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars and being involved in Manafort’s alleged crimes.
Andres argued that while Manafort did not “choose a Boy Scout” as his associate, Gates’ testimony was corroborated by other evidence, including nearly 400 exhibits, and a series of financial professionals who took the stand for the prosecution.
“The star witness in this case is the documents,” Andres told the jury.
“That wasn’t a cookie jar,” he added, referring to the tens of millions of dollars Manafort held overseas. “It was a huge dumpster of hidden money in foreign bank accounts.”
Prosecutors say Manafort, 69, tried to mislead bankers with doctored financial statements in 2015 and 2016 to secure more than $20 million in loans and failed to pay taxes on more than $15 million that he earned as a political consultant in Ukraine.
Defense lawyers decided not to call any witnesses in the trial, and Manafort, a veteran Republican political operative, did not testify in his own defense.
In the defense’s closing argument, Manafort’s lawyers argued that issues with his financial situation were known to the bankers before they extended him the loans.
They also sought to emphasize the idea that Manafort did not knowingly break the law - a requirement for conviction - and was rather failed by the bookkeepers, accountants and other professionals in whom he trusted his financial affairs.
“Sometimes the people we rely on are trustworthy. Sometimes they are not,” said lawyer Richard Westling.
The defense took particular aim at Gates, who admitted in court to an extramarital affair. Gates also said he helped Manafort doctor financial statements, hide foreign income and evade hundreds of thousands of dollars in U.S. income taxes.
Manafort’s attorneys have portrayed Gates as living a secret life of infidelity and embezzlement. Defense lawyer Kevin Downing told the jury that Gates had shown himself to be a liar.
“He came in here trying to look all clean shaven,” Downing said. “He came in here and tried to get one over on you.”
Manafort made millions of dollars working for pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians before taking an unpaid position with Trump’s campaign. He was on the campaign team for five months and led it in mid-2016 when Trump was selected as the Republican presidential nominee.
Prosecutors say Manafort hid money in offshore bank accounts and then used it to pay for over $6 million in New York and Virginia real estate, items such as antique rugs and fancy clothes, including a $15,000 jacket made of ostrich skin.
If found guilty on all 18 charges by the 12-person jury, he could face eight to 10 years in prison, according to sentencing expert Justin Paperny.
Manafort also faces a second trial in September in Washington, where he is accused of failing to disclose lobbying for Ukrainian politicians, among other crimes.
After the defense concluded its closing argument, Andres objected to Downing’s suggestions that a civil audit would have been more appropriate for Manafort’s tax issues and that Mueller’s office had unfairly singled him out.
Judge T.S. Ellis sided with Andres, and when he later gave instructions to jurors, he told them that the government was not required to do a civil tax audit before bringing criminal charges. He also instructed them to ignore any argument about the Department of Justice’s motives in bringing the case.
“We don’t want the jury deciding this case on that issue,” Ellis said earlier.
Before the jurors left for the day, the judge suggested that they not discuss their deliberations with the media after the verdict, claiming it might have a “chilling effect.”
Reporting by Karen Freifeld and Nathan Layne; additional reporting by Amanda Becker; writing by Alistair Bell; editing by Jonathan Oatis and James Dalgleish
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