By Luc Cohen
NEW YORK (Reuters) -An outside accountant gave testimony on Tuesday on his dealings with a top executive of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s real estate company that could undermine its defense as the Trump Organization’s trial on tax fraud charges neared an end.
Donald Bender, the first witness called by the defense, testified that Allen Weisselberg, who was the company’s chief financial officer, never told him that the Trump Organization paid his rent and other personal expenses for years. That could impair the defense’s contention that Bender should have blown the whistle to the company about Weisselberg’s fraud.
Under cross-examination by prosecutor Susan Hoffinger, Bender also said that if Weisselberg had told him about those payments and his misreporting of income, “We would have had a serious conversation about continuing as a client.”
Prosecutors with the Manhattan district attorney’s office have accused the company, which operates hotels, golf courses and other real estate around the world, of orchestrating a 15-year scheme of tax fraud starting in 2005 to pay executives through off-the-books benefits and compensate them as if they were independent contractors.
The Trump Organization has pleaded not guilty. The company has sought to shift the blame toward Weisselberg, who in August pleaded guilty to tax fraud and other charges, and Bender, who has been given immunity from prosecution after testifying to the grand jury that indicted the company and Weisselberg.
Bender testified as a defense witness after the prosecution opted not to call him to the stand before resting its case on Monday. Bender testified on Monday that he met with prosecutors to prepare for possible testimony as recently as Saturday.
Bender on Tuesday testified that Weisselberg assured him that the details the then-CFO provided to prepare his tax returns were accurate and did not warrant further investigation, which could make it harder for the defense to shift the blame onto him.
“I did due diligence,” Bender told jurors. “I wasn’t blind to the situation. I spoke to him. I trusted him,” Bender said.
The defense said it could rest its case next Monday, following a break for the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday. That would pave the way for closing arguments and jury deliberations later next week.
Trump has not been charged in the case. His company could face a fine of up to $1.6 million if convicted.
Trump, a Republican who last week launched another bid for the presidency in 2024, has called the charges politically motivated. Alvin Bragg, the current Manhattan district attorney, is a Democrat, as is the DA who brought the charges last year, Cyrus Vance.
(Reporting by Luc Cohen in New York; Editing by Will Dunham)