Trump Taxes Likely Going to Manhattan D.A., But Maybe Few Others
(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns has long fed a belief among his critics that they must contain politically damaging financial information or even evidence of criminal conduct.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday cleared the way for Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance to get his hands on nearly a decade’s worth of those documents as part of a grand jury investigation, rejecting the president’s claim of absolute immunity from a subpoena issued to his accounting firm, Mazars LLP.
“The clouds are getting larger and darker for the president,” said Gene Rossi, a former federal prosecutor in Virginia who called the returns “a treasure trove of potential crimes.”
Vance’s investigation is currently focused on hush-money payments made just before the 2016 election to former adult-film actress Stormy Daniels, who claims she once had a sexual relationship with Trump. Several former prosecutors said that case could solidify based on new information in the returns, or prosecutors could find new avenues to investigate.
“Once prosecutors see the tax returns, they may see other improprieties that lead them down another path,” said Barbara McQuade, a law professor at the University of Michigan and former federal prosecutor. “It may be that upon reviewing these documents, they may find evidence of money laundering or other crimes that may be far more extensive. We know that President Trump has worked very hard to keep these documents secret, and there may be multiple reasons.”
It’s also possible the returns reveal nothing or contain embarrassing information about the state of Trump’s finances but no evidence of a crime. It may be months before the district attorney’s office gets access to the returns, and certainly longer before anything becomes public.
First, the case has to go back to a lower federal court, where Trump has vowed to continue fighting the case. He tweeted his displeasure at the ruling.
Legal experts largely dismiss the president’s chances of further challenging Vance’s subpoena.
“Trump can make the same arguments that any litigant can make in a subpoena case but that’s not going to get him anywhere,” said former federal prosecutor Peter Zeidenberg. “Subpoenas are very rarely limited by a judge.”
But the fight could still keep Vance from getting the documents before the presidential election, said Jeremy Temkin, a former federal prosecutor. “I’d be very, very surprised if he got them before November,” he said.
And once Vance does have them, Trump’s taxes will be protected under grand-jury secrecy rules while the investigation continues.
“Unless somebody is charged with a crime, nobody’s going to see these,” said Adam Lurie, a former federal prosecutor in New Jersey.
Vance hailed the court’s verdict, calling it “a tremendous victory for our nation’s system of justice.” He said the investigation would resume, guided by “the grand jury’s solemn obligation to follow the law and the facts, wherever they may lead.”
The grand jury process has been delayed for months due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has likely created a backlog of violent crime cases, according to John Moscow, a former prosecutor who oversaw major white-collar investigations at the Manhattan attorney’s office. “The chances of an indictment before January would, to me, appear to be slim,” Moscow said.
And what charges, if any, might emerge from Vance’s Trump investigation remains uncertain.
“We don’t exactly know what he intends to do with these financial documents,” said Harry Sandick, a former federal prosecutor in New York. “It seems likely that this is a false business records case. It is possibly a tax evasion case.”
Michael Cohen, the president’s former personal lawyer, has already been convicted of violating federal campaign finance laws for making the $130,000 payment to Daniels.
But Vance can only bring charges under state law. Several legal experts said the district attorney is likely examining whether the Trump Organization falsified records related to its reimbursement and bonus payments to Cohen, who received $420,000.
In New York, falsifying business records can only be considered a felony if it’s done to conceal illegal activity, like tax fraud. That may be what Vance is driving at, said Moscow.
“If in fact the Trump Organization took business deductions for that kind of stuff, then the DA in Manhattan has a criminal case,” Moscow said. “If the company takes a $420,000 deduction for that payment, they’re paying less to the city and to the state, which are subsidizing people to keep them quiet about their dealings with Donald.”
But many believe Vance is looking beyond the hush-money payment. “It would shock me if that’s not on their mind,” said Lurie, the former prosecutor in New Jersey.
Former Virginia-based prosecutor Rossi agreed and predicted “trouble” for the president ahead. “I don’t know if the investigation is of the Trump Organization, Trump itself, or if it has to do with the payment to Stormy Daniels,” he said. “There’s very likely to be charges as a result of this, it’s just a question of whom and when.”
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