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Trump back in court for fraud trial on financial statements

Accountants were on the witness stand Wednesday, with Trump at the defense table for part of a third day.
Trump back in court for fraud trial on financial statements
Posted at 7:04 PM, Oct 04, 2023

The fraud trial that could block former President Donald Trump from doing business in New York drilled down Wednesday into the question of who — his company or hired accountants — bore responsibility for financial statements that the state calls fraudulent.

With accountants on the witness stand and Trump at the defense table for a third day, his attorneys tried to pin blame on accounting firms for any problems with the statements. But lawyers for New York Attorney General Letitia James sought to show that the accountants relied entirely on information supplied by Trump and his company.

Outside the courtroom, meanwhile, Trump's lawyers appealed a key pretrial ruling: That he engaged in fraud by puffing up the values of prized assets. The trial concerns six claims that remain in the lawsuit after that ruling.

Trump denies any wrongdoing. The trial comes as he leads the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, and the stakes are high for him and the real estate empire that launched him into public life.

The pretrial ruling that's now under appeal could cost him control of Trump Tower and some other properties. At the trial, James is seeking a $250 million penalty and a prohibition on Trump doing business in New York.

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At the heart of the case are the "statements of financial condition," yearly snapshots of Trump's wealth that were given to banks, insurers and others.

James says the statements were wildly inflated. His Trump Tower penthouse was claimed as nearly three times its actual size, for example, and his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida was hugely overvalued at as much as $739 million, she says.

Trump maintains that the statements actually underestimated the worth of luxury properties. He also emphasizes that the documents came with disclaimers that he characterizes as saying the numbers shouldn't be trusted and lenders should do their own homework.

But accountant Donald Bender, who prepared the financial statements for years, testified Tuesday that the Trump Organization didn’t always supply all the information needed to accurately produce the documents. Another accountant, Camron Harris, testified Wednesday that his work on the 2021 statement involved checking information provided by Trump’s company for "obvious errors" and formatting it for presentation.

"We do not verify the accuracy of any of the information provided," Harris said. His firm's work agreement with Trump's company specified that the accountants would "not express an opinion or any conclusion nor provide any assurance on the financial statements."

Trump lawyer Jesus M. Suarez, in cross-examining Bender on Tuesday and Wednesday, sought to depict the accountant as sloppy.

Suarez showed video Wednesday of pretrial testimony in which Bender said he didn’t recall whether he consulted with any specialists when preparing Trump’s financial statements. Yet, Suarez noted, Bender's firm told clients it might need specialists' help to evaluate works of art, jewelry, and some types of securities in closely held businesses and real estate.

When Bender acknowledged on Tuesday that he missed a shift in information about the size of the Trump Tower penthouse, Suarez told the accountant that Trump’s company and employees were "going through hell" because "you missed it."

Bender retorted that it was the Trump Organization's mistake, "and we didn’t catch it."

As the cross-examination wore on Wednesday with painstaking queries about specific aspects of individual financial statements, Judge Arthur Engoron pounded his fist and said the defense was ignoring his instructions to streamline the questioning.

"This is ridiculous," said the judge, who's hearing the case without a jury because state law doesn't allow for one in this type of lawsuit.

Trump's lawyers complained that the judge was compromising their ability to defend the former president.

"I’ve never had to negotiate how to ask questions as a lawyer," defense attorney Christopher Kise said.

Trump, with familiar rhetoric outside court on Wednesday, called James "incompetent," portrayed her as part of a broader Democratic effort to weaken his 2024 prospects, and termed the case "fake" and the trial "a disgrace."

"Why attend? Because I want to point it out to the press, how corrupt it is," he said as he left court during its lunch break. He headed to Florida, next expected to return to the courtroom when he's called to testify, likely several weeks from now.

James later described his comments as offensive, baseless and "devoid of any facts and/or any evidence."

"The Donald Trump show is over. This was nothing more than a political stunt. A fundraising stop. Now, we can continue to go forward with our trial, and we are confident that justice will be served," James told reporters outside court.

Trump has frequently vented in the courthouse hallway and on social media about the trial, James and Engoron, also a Democrat.

After Trump assailed Engoron's principal law clerk on social media Tuesday, the judge imposed a limited gag order, commanding all participants in the trial not to hurl personal attacks at members of his staff. The judge told Trump to delete the "disparaging, untrue and personally identifying post," and the former president took it down.


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