Manafort’s defence team opens trial by blaming associates

Trial on financial fraud charges sets up a dramatic courtroom showdown between Manafort and Gates

ALEXANDRIA, Virginia: Paul Manafort’s trial on financial fraud charges opened Tuesday with an effort by his defence team to deflect blame to the government’s star witness in the case, Rick Gates, Manafort’s longtime political consulting partner.

The defence strategy pits the credibility of Manafort, a former campaign chairman for President Donald Trump, against that of Gates, who has pleaded guilty to charges in the same case and is cooperating in the inquiry led by the special counsel, Robert Mueller. And it sets up a dramatic courtroom showdown between Gates, who is scheduled to take the stand for the prosecution, and Manafort, who worked closely with him in aiding pro-Russia politicians in Ukraine for a decade and also in 2016 on Trump’s campaign.

The trial, over charges that Manafort hid tens of millions of dollars he received for his work in Ukraine and then engaged in bank fraud when those funds dried up, got under way at a rapid clip.

A jury of six men and six women was seated hours after the proceedings began in US District Court in Alexandria, Virginia. The prosecutors and the defence team made their opening statements laying out the contours of the case they intend to make to the jury.

In his opening statement, Thomas Zehnle, one of Manafort’s five defence lawyers, said Gates embezzled millions from Manafort and then, fearing prison time for his own misdeeds, turned on him under pressure from Mueller.

“Rick Gates is their foundation,” Zehnle said.

Even though Gates has pleaded guilty to lying to federal authorities and conspiracy to engage in financial fraud, Zehnle said, “the government is going to ask you to trust him.”

The trial is the first stemming from charges brought by Mueller in his investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. Although the charges against Manafort involve neither Trump nor allegations of collusion with Russia, the trial is the first courtroom test of Mueller’s work and the likelihood of it being focused on two former senior Trump advisers savaging each other’s honesty in coming weeks will only draw more attention to it.

Gates is one of about 35 prosecution witnesses scheduled to testify about what the government calls a shrewdly crafted multi-year scheme by Manafort to evade taxes on $15 million (Dh55 million) in income he earned while working to promote the political fortunes of Viktor F. Yanukovych, a former leader of Ukraine.

Uzo Asonye, an assistant US attorney on the prosecution’s team, told the jury that Yanukovych was Manafort’s “golden goose” and that Ukrainian oligarchs who ran entire industries in Ukraine paid Manafort $60 million over a decade to bolster Yanukovych’s fortunes.

Manafort hid most of his income, and roped book-keepers, tax accountants and bank officials into his scheme “in order to get and keep money,” Asonye said. “He even lied about where he was living.”

Although it was only the first day of what is expected to be a three-week trial, it seemed clear that the central argument would be whether Manafort directed the various fraudulent financial schemes, or was duped or directed by others, including Gates.

Zehnle said Manafort was too busy as a highly paid political consultant working overseas to keep track of his finances, and relied on a staff of professionals, including Gates.

“Mr. Gates was the point man,” he said.

If Manafort’s payments for his Ukraine work were made in an unorthodox fashion through accounts in Cyprus, he said, it was because his financial patrons insisted that is how he should be paid, not because Manafort was trying to hide his income.

“That is the way the client wanted it to be done,” he told the jurors. “His Ukrainian patrons set up the accounts, not Paul Manafort.”

Manafort, 69, is the only American charged by Mueller’s team so far to force the prosecutors to present their evidence at trial. The other four Americans who have been indicted all pleaded guilty, including Michael T. Flynn, a campaign adviser who became Trump’s national security adviser, and George Papadopoulos, an unpaid campaign adviser who was targeted by emissaries who have been linked to Russian intelligence.

Trump has repeatedly suggested that he was surprised at how harshly Manafort had been treated. In an interview with Fox News two weeks ago, he said the indictments against his former aides, including Manafort, were a “very sad thing for our country.”

He described Manafort, who helped the campaign marshal delegates for two months before moving up to campaign chairman in the spring of 2016, as “a nice man,” adding: “You look at what’s going on with him, it’s like Al Capone.”

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