New York (AFP) – The trial of Donald Trump's family business on fraud and tax evasion charges began in New York on Monday, with the former US president immediately dismissing as it as a political stunt.
Manhattan prosecutors have charged the Trump Organization, currently run by Trump's two adult sons, Donald Jr and Eric Trump, with hiding compensation it paid to top executives between 2005 and 2021.
Trump, who is not named in the case, slammed the charges as a “witch hunt” by rivals, weeks ahead of congressional elections on November 8.
“The highly partisan Democrat Witch Hunt goes on, this time in New York… right during the important Mid-Term Elections, of course,” he said on social media.
The company faces potential fines of over $1.5 million if found guilty.
US news outlets said Judge Juan Merchan had made media access to the courtroom difficult and had warned the 130 jury candidates that their selection could take a week, so as to filter out any supporters or open opponents of the divisive former Republican president.
The trial could last a month and a half, he said.
One of the implicated executives, longtime CFO Allen Weisselberg, has already pleaded guilty to 15 counts of tax fraud, and is expected to testify against his former company as part of a plea bargain.
A close friend of the Trump family, the 75-year-old Weisselberg admitted he schemed with the company to receive undeclared benefits such as a rent-free apartment in a posh Manhattan neighborhood, luxury cars for him and his wife and private school tuition for his grandchildren.
According to his plea deal, Weisselberg has agreed to pay nearly $2 million in fines and penalties and complete a five-month prison sentence in exchange for testimony during the trial, for which jury selection began Monday.
“This plea agreement directly implicates the Trump Organization in a wide range of criminal activity and requires Weisselberg to provide invaluable testimony in the upcoming trial against the corporation,” Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said in August.
Weisselberg has so far refused to give testimony directly implicating the former president in the scheme.
Multiple legal cases
Two subsidiaries of the Trump family's sprawling real estate, golf and hospitality business are targeted by the suits.
While Donald Trump is not named in this case, he is facing charges along with three of his eldest children in a civil investigation led by New York's attorney general, Leticia James.
James, a Democrat, has accused the family of purposefully inflating and deflating the value of their properties to avoid tax liabilities and to get more favorable loan and insurance deals.
Her office is seeking $250 million in fines against the former president, and that his family be barred from conducting business in the state.
The suit also calls for three of Trump's children — Donald Jr, Eric and Ivanka — to be barred from purchasing real estate in New York for five years.
The 76-year-old Trump, who has heavily hinted at but not yet announced a 2024 White House run, is also facing legal action on several other fronts.
He is at the center of a Justice Department investigation into the handling of highly classified documents, which the FBI seized from his Florida home in a raid, as well as multiple state and federal probes into his involvement in the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol.
The congressional committee investigating the Capitol riot has issued a subpoena requiring him to submit documents by November 4 and give sworn testimony by mid-November.
Without confirming that Trump had received the subpoena, his lawyer David Warrington has said his team would “review and analyze” the document and “respond as appropriate to this unprecedented action.”
Trump's compliance would mean testifying under oath.
If he refuses, the House of Representatives can hold him in criminal contempt in a vote recommending him for prosecution.