Trump company's finance chief pleads not guilty to tax crimes

The long-serving chief financial officer of Donald Trump’s company pleaded not guilty in a New York court to tax crimes on Thursday, the first charges related to an investigation into the former president’s business dealings.

Allen Weisselberg, 73, was brought into the state courtroom in handcuffs for his indictment before a judge shortly before 2:15 pm (1815 GMT) after he surrendered to New York authorities.

The Trump Organization was also charged in a scheme to defraud New York from 2005 until this year. 

The indictment of Weisselberg and the company had been expected for days as part of an almost three-year investigation by the Manhattan district attorney into business dealings at the Trump Organization.

Although Trump himself has not been charged at this stage, nor any members of his family, the charges deal a major blow to the Republican ex-president who has suggested he could run for the White House again in 2024.

The Trump Organization and Weisselberg were slapped with 15 felony counts including a scheme to defraud, conspiracy, grand larceny and falsifying business records.

Weisselberg is accused of evading taxes on $1.7 million of income over 15 years, according to the indictment.

The 73-year-old Weisselberg is viewed as the gatekeeper of the Trump Organization’s secrets.

The charges are believed to be related to taxes on fringe benefits.

“Mr. Weisselberg… will fight these charges in court,” his attorneys Mary Mulligan and Bryan Skarlatos told AFP.

Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance and New York state Attorney General Letitia James have been investigating whether Weisselberg and other executives avoided paying taxes on perks from the Trump Organization.

The benefits included private school tuition, leased luxury cars and apartments, US media say.

Trump, 75, has dismissed the probe as a witch hunt.

In a statement Thursday, the Trump Organization said prosecutors were using Weisselberg as “a pawn in a scorched earth attempt to harm the former president.”

“The district attorney is bringing a criminal prosecution involving employee benefits that neither the IRS nor any other district attorney would ever think of bringing,” a spokesperson for the company said.

– Tax returns –

“This is not justice. This is politics,” they added in the statement carried by US media.

The Trump Organization is an unlisted family holding company that owns golf clubs, hotels and luxury properties.

Trump handed over the reins of the business to his two eldest sons and to Weisselberg when he went to the White House in early 2017.

New York prosecutors have been trying to get Weisselberg to cooperate with their broad investigations into the Trump Organization’s finances.

The indictment would increase the pressure on him to cooperate.

New York prosecutors are probing whether the company regularly overvalued or undervalued its assets, particularly several properties in New York state, to either get bank loans or reduce their taxes.

Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen has alleged that they did, allegations that could constitute possible tax evasion or insurance fraud.

The investigations also center on eight years of Trump’s tax returns, obtained by the prosecutors in February after a long legal battle that went to the Supreme Court.

Vance’s probe initially focused on hush payments made to two women who allege they had affairs with Trump — before the investigation was expanded.

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