By Nancy Thorner & Ed Ingold -
The trial of Paul Manafort, who joined Donald Trump's presidential campaign team in March 2016 and was campaign chairman from June to August 2016, is off to a disturbing start. Even more striking is that the Manafort case is a fourteen year old case. Nothing could be found at the time to indict Manafort, but fast forward to July 26, 2017, when FBI Agents took an unusually tough approach in executing a search warrant dealing with potential financial crimes by Paul Manafort by busting into his home in a pre-dawn raid with guns-blazing tactics as Manafort and his wife were asleep in bed. Manafort's wife was even searched for weapons.
The first three days of testimony presented by the prosecution consisted of hours of details concerning Manafort’s extravagant life style, particularly thousands of dollars spend on clothing, cars and home improvements. On several occasions the presiding judge, T.S. Ellis III, admonished the prosecution and jury that spending money was not a crime. The same judge noted that the only interest exhibited by the Mueller team was an attempt to force Manafort to provide incriminating evidence against President Trump. He suggested that while a defendant might be encouraged to “sing,” he is also tempted to “compose.”
Judge Ellis experienced a blowout on the third day when the prosecution called an “expert” witness to testify, J. Phillip Ayliff, a certified public accountant. Ayliff was there to lay the groundwork for terminology and explain what a tax preparation company does for its clients. After a testimony that seemed to go on forever, Judge Ellis finally had enough. The prosecution attempted to have one of Manafort’s e-forms submitted. While denying the request, Ellis told the prosecution, “NO!” then told prosecutors, “You move it along!”
Although the prosecuting attorneys were visibly shaken by Judge Ellis’ rebuke, but it was about to get worse. One of the terms he was being asked to define, “financial interest,” had already been agreed upon by the prosecution and defense. When prosecutors proceeded to ask Ayliff to define the term for the jurors, Judge Ellis immediately called for a bench conference. Judge Ellis then called for the early recess and excused the jurors, but before leaving the bench the judge explained to the courtroom exactly what had happened during the bench conference, the prosecution had made a gross mistake in trying to present Ayliff as an expert witness as well as creating possible confusion with an already agreed upon definition for the term “financial interest. Ellis believed any further defining by Ayliff would only create more confusion for the jury members.
Demonization of one’s adversaries is nothing new. Public shaming of wealth was used, under Stalin, in the collectivization of farms in the 1930’s. Individuals just above peasant level, who owned tractors and other mechanized farm equipment, were paraded before their peers. Their equipment was confiscated (but usually removed from the area), and the owners were forced to do manual labor, consigned to a Siberian prison, or simply killed.
According to the news, Manafort faces up to 300 years in prison for his alleged offenses, which are usually treated as a civil matter, not criminal ones. At the age of 69, even ten years might be a “life” sentence. Today, the average sentence for tax fraud is a little over one year, along with appropriate fines and payment of back taxes.
Similar tactics were used to convict mobster Al Capone in 1930. Capone’s spending habits were extensively detailed, with very little connection to unreported income. In the end, Capone was sentenced to 11 years in prison and a $50,000 fine. Capone served time in federal penitentiaries in Atlanta and at Alcatraz for the October 17, 1931 verdict handed down of tax evasion. On November 1939 after serving less than eight years of an eleven year term, the longest term ever handed down for tax evasion, Capone was released while suffering from paresis caused by untreated syphilis. On January 25, 1947, Capone died of a stroke in Palm Island, Florida.
By any measure, the charges against Manafort seem grossly excessive. It's an overkill by the prosecutor and use of abusive power to squeeze Manafort, or any of his close advisors, for information based on what the prosecutor wishes to hear in order for the accused to avoid their own fate. As a further insult and incentive for Manafort to "sing," he is now sitting in solitary confinement.
This trial shows the depth to which Mueller will go to get something damaging to the President. In 14 months of investigation, no evidence of criminal conspiracy or obstruction has been uncovered, or at least leaked through the screen doors of bureaucracy. The only prosecutions have been for unrelated offenses (e.g., lying to federal agents) and indictments against 12 Russian citizens who will never be brought to trial.
For further insight into the trial, here is an excellent Wall Street Journal video that relates what the Manafort trial is all about taking place in Virginia. This is the first of two trials, and it's all about money. 18 counts have been handed down against Manafort that involve tax evasion, tax fraud, land fraud conspiracy. Paul Manafort may or may not be guilty of tax evasion, but his main crime seems to be association with Donald Trump. Mueller seems to have assumed the role of Torquemada, Grand Inquisitor in 15th Century Spain, torturing heretics until they confessed and denounced their accomplices.