Monday 20 August 2018

Trump advisor 'directed millions in international transfers to pay for high-end suits and home improvements'

Paul Manafort, president Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)
Paul Manafort, president Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

Chad Day and Eric Tucker

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort personally directed millions of dollars in international wire transfers to pay for high-end suits and more than 3 million dollars (£2.3 million) in improvements at his homes, witnesses have said at his trial.

The testimony on the second day of his financial fraud trial on Wednesday was aimed at bolstering the prosecution's argument that Manafort hid millions of dollars in income from the IRS and used the funds for a lavish lifestyle.

The witness accounts were also intended to contradict Manafort's lawyers, who have signalled they will pin blame for any illegal conduct on his longtime deputy, Rick Gates.

The prosecution's focus on Manafort's personal finances - at times laid out in painstaking detail - underscored the vast amount of documents accumulated by special counsel Robert Mueller's team in their case against the longtime political consultant.

But it also tried the patience of US district judge TS Ellis III, who repeatedly scolded the government's lawyers for what he said was excessive and unnecessary information.

He warned prosecutors against using the word "oligarchs" to describe wealthy Ukrainians and admonished them for spending so much time documenting Manafort's extravagant lifestyle.

"The government doesn't want to prosecute somebody because they wear nice clothes, do they?" he said, amid testimony that Manafort had spent more than 900,000 dollars (£687,000) on clothing from a boutique retailer where he was one of only about 40 clients.

The trial is the first courtroom test for the special counsel, who was tasked last year with investigating Russia's efforts to sway the 2016 election and to determine whether the Trump campaign was involved.

So far, Manafort is the lone person to stand trial as a result of the ongoing probe, even though the charges of bank fraud and tax evasion are unrelated to possible collusion.

However, the trial has pulled back the curtain on the former lobbyist who steered Trump's election efforts for a time.

One witness, Maximillian Katzman, testified that Manafort spent more than 900,000 dollars (£687,000) at his boutique retailer in New York. He said Manafort was the only business client of his who paid via international wire transfer.

An FBI agent described the July 2017 raid on Manafort's Virginia condominium, and said searches found expensively tailored suits and documents related to other luxury items allegedly bought by Manafort, including two silk rugs bought for 160,000 dollars (£122,000) paid from offshore accounts.

But when prosecutors introduced photos of Manafort's high-end condo and expensive suits, the judge interrupted so as to limit the growing list of evidence jurors would have to consider.

"All this document shows is that Mr Manafort had a lavish lifestyle," he said. "It isn't relevant."

Prosecutor Greg Andres argued that documenting Manafort's spending for the jury was important to the case.

"Judge, this is not an effort to prove Mr Manafort lived lavishly," Andres said. "It's evidence of his income."

The proceedings clearly caught the attention of president Donald Trump, who defended his 2016 hiring of Manafort and suggested Manafort was being treated worse than mobster Al Capone. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president indeed felt Manafort had been treated unfairly.

"Why didn't government tell me that he was under investigation," Trump tweeted on Wednesday. "These old charges have nothing to do with Collusion - a Hoax!"

Testimony was due to resume on Thursday with witnesses including bookkeepers and accountants.

Press Association

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