Donald Trump’s company and its long-time finance chief have been charged in what prosecutors called a “sweeping and audacious” tax fraud scheme in which the executive collected more than 1.7 million dollars (£1.2 million) in off-the-books compensation, including apartment rent, car payments and school tuition.
Mr Trump was not charged, but prosecutors noted that he signed some of the cheques at the centre of the alleged scheme.
It is the first criminal case to come out New York authorities’ two-year investigation into the former president’s business dealings.
According to the indictment unsealed on Thursday, from 2005 until this year, the Trump Organisation and chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg cheated the state and city out of taxes by conspiring to pay senior executives, Weisselberg included, off the books, by way of lucrative fringe benefits and other means.
Weisselberg and lawyers for the Trump Organisation pleaded not guilty. Weisselberg was ordered to surrender his passport and released without bail.
The 73-year-old has intimate knowledge of the Trump Organisation’s financial dealings from nearly five decades at the company. And the charges against him could give prosecutors the means to pressure him to co-operate with the investigation and tell them what he knows.
In a statement, Mr Trump branded the case a “political Witch Hunt by the Radical Left Democrats”. Weisselberg’s lawyers said he will “fight these charges”.
The case is being led by Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance Jr and New York attorney general Letitia James, both Democrats.
Mr Vance, who leaves office at the end of the year, has been conducting a wide-ranging investigation into a variety of matters involving Mr Trump and the Trump Organisation, such as hush-money payments to women on Mr Trump’s behalf and whether the company manipulated the value of its properties to obtain loans or reduce its tax bills.
In announcing the grand jury indictment, Carey Dunne, the senior prosecutor in the district attorney’s office, said: “Politics has no role in the jury chamber, and I can assure you it had no role here.”
He outlined a 15-year scheme “orchestrated by the most senior executives” at the Trump Organisation.
The company is the entity through which the former president manages his many ventures, including his investments in office towers, hotels and golf courses, his many marketing deals and his TV pursuits. His sons Donald Jr and Eric have been in charge of the company’s day-to-day operations since he became president.
Weisselberg came under scrutiny in part because of questions about his son’s use of a Trump apartment at little or no cost.
Weisselberg’s son Barry — who managed a Trump-operated ice rink in Central Park — paid no reported rent while living in a Trump-owned apartment in 2018, and he was charged just 1,000 dollars per month — far below typical Manhattan prices — while living in a Trump apartment from 2005 to 2012, the indictment said.
Allen Weisselberg, a private man who lived for years in a modest home on Long Island, continued to claim residency there despite living in a company-paid Manhattan apartment, prosecutors said.
By doing so, Weisselberg concealed that he was a New York City resident and avoided paying more than 900,000 dollars in federal, state and city income taxes, instead collecting about 133,000 dollars in refunds to which he was not entitled, prosecutors said.
According to the indictment, Weisselberg paid for rent on his Manhattan apartment with company checks and directed the company to pay for his utility bills and parking.
The company also paid for private school tuition for Weisselberg’s grandchildren with cheques bearing Mr Trump’s signature, as well as for Mercedes-Benz cars driven by Weisselberg and his wife, and gave him cash to hand out tips around Christmas.
Trump’s company also issued cheques, at Weisselberg’s request, to pay for personal expenses and upgrades to his homes and an apartment used by one of his sons, such as new beds, flat-screen TVs, carpeting and furniture for his Florida residence, prosecutors said.
Barry Weisselberg’s ex-wife, Jen Weisselberg, has been co-operating with investigators and given them reams of tax records and other documents.
Two other Trump executives who were not identified by name also received substantial under-the-table compensation, including lodging and the payment of car leases, the indictment said.
Trump has said his company’s actions were standard practice in business and in no way a crime. The Trump Organisation accused the district attorney’s office of using Weisselberg as a “a pawn in a scorched-earth attempt to harm the former president”.
Vance fought a long battle to get Mr Trump’s tax records and has been subpoenaing documents and interviewing company executives and other Trump insiders.