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Trump Org complains about devising new criminal defense after CFO Weisselberg’s guilty plea; judge warns trial won’t be delayed

New York Daily News 9/12/2022 Molly Crane-Newman, New York Daily News
Allen Weisselberg arrives for his plea hearing at state Supreme Court in Manhattan on Aug. 18. © New York Daily News/TNS Allen Weisselberg arrives for his plea hearing at state Supreme Court in Manhattan on Aug. 18.

Lawyers for former President Donald Trump’s embattled family real estate business complained Monday about needing to find a new defense theory for its upcoming criminal trial after the company’s co-defendant and CFO Allen Weisselberg admitted guilt.

State Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan had little sympathy for the Trump Organization at a pretrial hearing in lower Manhattan and said the case would proceed before a jury on Oct. 24 — no excuses.

“[T]he defense is trying to stall; it’s starting to feel that way,” said Judge Merchan. “We are not delaying this trial.”

Weisselberg, 75, who once described himself as Trump’s “eyes and ears” from a financial standpoint, pleaded guilty to felony tax fraud charges in a 15-count indictment on Aug. 18 in exchange for a lighter jail sentence than he would have received had he gone to trial alongside the company and lost.

The plea deal requires the CFO to testify for the prosecution about the crimes he pleaded guilty to if called to the stand at the Trump Org trial. The corporation’s lawyers said its former codefendant switching roles overnight to become the prosecution’s “star witness” had forced them to “radically change” and restructure their defense strategy with the trial just around the corner.

Attorney Susan Necheles said Trump Org lawyers want access to Weisselberg’s statements to the Manhattan district attorney in their plea negotiation talks. And they want to cross-examine the long-serving executive about his reasons for pleading guilty.

“I believe he will say that he thinks he was targeted because of his association with Donald Trump, and because of that, he took a guilty plea in part,” said Necheles.

“I believe that is certainly fair game for us to ask [about].”

But the judge said Trump Org lawyers could not argue that prosecutors discriminated against the company or Weisselberg and said he would have “very little patience” if they tried to introduce that theory to jurors.

“I will not allow you — in any way — to bring up a selective prosecution claim or any novel prosecution claims,” said Merchan.

Trump has claimed that Weisselberg is a victim of a Democrat-led “witch hunt” that has weaponized the justice system to stop him from regaining power. Weisselberg is one in a string of Trump allies, including Steve Bannon and Rudy Giuliani, facing mounting legal threats.

In pleading guilty, the CFO hired by Fred Trump in the 1970s admitted to dodging income tax on at least $1.7 million in off-the-books fringe benefits disguised as work expenses — like a rent-free apartment and cosmetic dental work for his relatives, luxury car leases and other lavish purchases.

The CFO is expected to serve 100 days in a Rikers Island jail cell with good behavior if prosecutors are satisfied with his testimony. City defendants who receive a prison term under one year typically serve their sentence at the troubled jail complex.

If convicted at trial, the Trump Organization faces significant financial penalties. The company is also under investigation by state Attorney General Letitia James’ office, which is expected to file a major civil lawsuit against it soon.

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