Manafort Judge's Need for Speed Jolts Prosecution Off Its Game

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. prosecutors want to tell a jury about Paul Manafort’s lavish lifestyle and spending habits to support their claim that he failed to pay taxes on offshore income and defrauded banks. The judge isn’t making it easy for them.

Manafort Judge's Need for Speed Jolts Prosecution Off Its Game

U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III, who’s repeatedly said he wants the trial to move fast, is living up to his word. On Wednesday, just the second day of the trial, he forced prosecutors to race through evidence and cut them off when they spent too long on a topic. The judge’s obvious irritation appeared to disorient prosecutors, who typically are given more latitude in questioning witnesses and displaying documents. Ellis was having none of that.

“The more I can do to shorten this thing the better,” Ellis told prosecutors in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia. “Then you get to go home and I get to go home.”

The pressure from the judge may be having an effect. Prosecutors initially estimated the trial would last three weeks. On Wednesday, with a fourth witness already on the stand, they said things were moving so quickly they should be able to wrap up their case next week.

Manafort Judge's Need for Speed Jolts Prosecution Off Its Game

The judge and prosecutors clashed several times during testimony from FBI Special Agent Matthew Mikuska. He recounted an early-morning raid on Manafort’s condominium in July 2017, when agents knocked three times and entered with a key they obtained. Through the agent, Assistant U.S. Attorney Uzo Asonye tried to show jurors photographs and documents about Manafort’s luxurious lifestyle and how he paid for the trappings from accounts in Cyprus.

Manafort used untaxed offshore money to buy $849,000 of clothes from a New York store, $520,000 of clothes from a Beverly Hills store, and $934,350 of goods from an antique store, according to the prosecutors. Among his clothes was a $15,000 ostrich jacket, prosecutors said.

When Mikuska was asked about the number of suits he found in Manafort’s condo, the agent said: “It’s hard to quantify, but easily closets full.”

But Ellis refused to let jurors see pictures of the garments. "Let’s move on," he told Asonye.

With the jury out of the room, Ellis criticized prosecutors for what he saw as an excessive focus on Manafort’s luxurious lifestyle and their efforts to introduce evidence of it through the FBI agent.

"Enough is enough," the judge said. Referring to photos of Manafort’s fancy clothes, Ellis asked how it would advance the case. He pressed prosecutors on whether they could tie the clothes to the money Manafort made.

Ellis forced Asonye to move so quickly through the FBI agent’s evidence that jurors got no context or explanation for the exhibits they saw briefly on their video monitors. Ellis also refused to display a photograph of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych that he had admitted into evidence, and he only briefly allowed jurors to see a picture of Manafort’s condo building.

“Can you describe the building?” Asonye asked the FBI agent.

“They can see the building,” Ellis interjected. He then asked the agent: “Is somewhere in this building what you searched, a condo you searched?” When Mikuska said yes, Ellis said: “Alright, let’s move on.”

After sending jurors out for their morning break, Ellis, still visibly annoyed, told the lawyers the case was about whether Manafort signed false income tax returns that failed to disclose foreign accounts and omitted income.

Ellis said he was unclear about how Asonye planned to tie Manafort’s money to an exhibit on home improvements. “Is it just that Mr. Manafort is awash in money?” Ellis asked.

Sartorial Tastes

As the testimony rolled on, with an executive from what’s billed as the “world’s most expensive store,” prosecutors seemed to be adapting to Ellis’s directives, focusing more on how Manafort used wire transfers from Cyprus bank accounts to pay for the clothes, than the clothes themselves.

Before the jury came in for the second day, Ellis told Asonye he used the word "oligarch" too often in his opening statement. The prosecutor had described Ukrainian oligarchs who funded Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, which Manafort advised for several years. Ellis said he won’t allow the word to come up again.

“The word oligarch has come to have a pejorative meaning about which there will be no evidence at trial,” Ellis said. After saying prosecutors could submit written arguments on the matter, the judge said: “We’re not going to have this case tried that he associated with despicable people and therefore he’s despicable. That’s not the American way.”

Big Surprise

The biggest surprise of the day came when Ellis asked about a document referring to Manafort’s former right-hand man Rick Gates, who has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with Mueller. In his opening statement on Tuesday, Manafort attorney Thomas Zehnle called Gates a thief and a liar who betrayed his boss to line his own pockets.

Ellis asked if prosecutors intended to call Gates as a witness.

“We’re not sure,” Asonye said. “He may testify in this case, your honor. He may not.”

Reporters bolted for the door with the juicy news flash that Mueller’s team might not call its star witness after all.

Ellis looked bemused. “That was news to me, by the way, and obviously to about 25 people who scurried out of here like rats on a sinking ship,” he said.

“As the evidence comes in, we constantly re-evaluate whether we need to call certain witnesses,’’ Asonye responded. “It’s not to suggest we’re not calling him, but obviously if we can shorten the trial, we will do so. And that applies to every witness that we put on the list, not just Mr. Gates.’’

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