Heated arguments mark Trump Organization hearings in two New York courts

More than a dozen lawyers representing the Trump Organization in two separate cases gathered in lower Manhattan Tuesday morning, for a pair of proceedings in courtrooms a block apart, in matters that might decide the future of the company.

The two cases, a civil suit brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James in September, and a criminal trial on charges brought by the Manhattan district attorney in 2021, stem from parallel investigations conducted against the backdrop of Trump’s presidency and the public relations offensive he continued after his 2020 defeat.

Trump has accused both offices of conducting a “political witch hunt” while his company has suffered a series of courtroom defeats — failing to stop the probes or limit investigators’ access to both the company’s and Trump’s financial records. In Manhattan Civil Supreme Court, the New York attorney general and lawyers for the company met Tuesday, five days after a judge assigned an independent monitor to keep tabs on the company. 

In that case, the state claims the Trump Organization, former president Donald Trump and three of his children — Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka and Eric — engaged in a yearslong widespread fraud scheme revolving around property value manipulations. The New York attorney general is seeking $250 million, an end to the company’s operations in New York and sanctions on the four Trumps.

Alina Habba, an attorney for Trump and the company, said at the hearing that the Trumps plan to attend the civil trial next year, “All of them.” She added that Trump himself might testify in his own defense.

The hearing, a scheduling conference, became heated soon after it began, when Judge Arthur Engoron criticized a motion to dismiss filed Monday night by Trump and the company. Engoron said the arguments fell into three groups that mirrored those he had already rejected when company attorneys tried to scuttle the Attorney General’s investigation: “Standing, or lack thereof, what I call ‘the witch hunt argument,’ failure to plead a cause of action.”

“I think it was Yogi Berra, unless it was Casey Stengel, who said it’s ‘deja vu all over again,'” Engoron said, referring to a famous line attributed to Berra, the New York Yankees Hall of Fame catcher.

Habba seethed openly in court, saying Engoron “has a clear bias against our client.”

“You’re asking why my arguments are different? They’re not.” Habba said. “They filed a complaint and we have to respond.”

After the hearing, Habba walked a block north to Manhattan Criminal Court, where she sat in the audience watching lawyers for two Trump Organization companies that are on trial on more than a dozen counts related to criminal fraud and tax evasion. Prosecutors say executives at the Trump Organization, which has denied all charges, devised a variety of schemes to receive untaxed benefits and bonuses worth hundreds of thousands per year. On Monday, prosecutors rested, and defense attorneys called their first witness, an accountant named Donald Bender who worked on his firm’s Trump accounts — both personal and corporate — for four decades.

Trump Organization attorneys have sought to pin the blame on the company’s former chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, who in August entered a guilty plea in the case. They’ve argued Weisselberg and Bender, who received immunity in exchange for grand jury testimony, should have better protected the company.

Weisselberg previously testified that he lived in an $8,200 per month corporate apartment overlooking the Hudson River without declaring the benefit, and that his son Barry paid $1,000 per month — far below market rate — for a luxury Central Park South apartment.’

In court on Tuesday, Trump Organization attorney Susan Necheles paced back and forth while questioning Bender on his communications with Weisselberg about Barry’s apartment. Necheles asked if Weisselberg had sought advice on the arrangement.

Bender said he had advised against it.

“He asked me a question and I told him in my mind it didn’t work,” Bender said.

Necheles shot back: “And you have no record of giving that advice?”

During two sidebars Monday, Necheles and another Trump Organization attorney argued that Bender should be declared a hostile witness, claiming he wasn’t being forthcoming in his answers. Judge Juan Merchan denied those requests.

Trump summarized his defense team’s stance on Bender’s firm, Mazars USA, in a post on his social media platform Truth Social.

“The highly paid accounting firm should have routinely picked these things up – we relied on them. VERY UNFAIR!” Trump wrote on Nov. 18.

That day, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced a special counsel to oversee two ongoing federal criminal investigations related to Trump, probes into the removal of documents from the White House and the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol riot.

As she walked into the courtroom Tuesday, a few minutes before her confrontation with Engoron, Habba was asked if Trump’s team was prepared to fend off the cavalcade of legal challenges.

“I think we’re doing a really good job. If you look at our track record, we’ve been winning,” Habba replied. The judge later rejected the company’s request to delay trial in the New York civil case for at least 15 months, instead scheduling it for Oct. 2, 2023.

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