As prosecutors painted a picture of million-dollar clothing bills and many millions more in home purchases and improvements all paid through shady offshore corporate corporations intended to hide his wealth from the IRS, Judge Thomas Ellis seemed irritated at the feds’ focus on the former Trump campaign manager’s life of rare luxury.
Ellis frequently admonished the prosecution for its richly detailed focus on Manafort’s richly lived life, declaring at one point that “Mr. Manafort is not on trial for having a lavish lifestyle.”
The verdict would be clear if that was in fact the charge. Maximillian Katzman, a retailer of “luxury custom clothing” from Alan Couture, testified that Manafort was one of the company’s “top five clients” and racked up a roughly $930,000 tab for suits, sportscoats, and outerwear at the store from 2010 through 2014. Ronald W. Wall, an accountant for another luxury boutique in Beverly Hills, the House of Bijan, told the court that the company earned as estimated $334,000 from selling Manafort shirts, jackets, and suits.
As the government paraded witnesses who’d worked for Manafort—a real estate agent who sold him a $1.9 million house for his daughter, Andrea; an architect who designed an outdoor kitchen and living room; a contactor who racked up over $3 million worth of home improvements at Manafort’s various properties; and a car dealership where Manafort and his wife bought a $123,000 BMW—each testified that he’d been paid by international wire transfer from various unfamiliar offshore limited liability corporations.
The payments came from companies named Leviathan Advisors, Ltd, Lucille LLC, Global Highway Ltd—all of them based in Nicosia, Cyprus and set up, according to the government, to allow Manafort to pay his luxury bills without tipping off tax authorities about the full extent of his income.
Prosecutors Greg Andres and Uzo Asonye repeatedly asked Manafort’s various vendors whether they knew or interacted with his business partner, Rick Gates. Each testified that they neither knew nor interacted with Gates. The questions appeared to be an attempt by the prosecution to preempt the argument, put forward by the defense, that Manafort’s financial dealings are the result of him being duped by an unscrupulous Gates. Gates pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and a conspiracy charge in exchange for his assistance with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe.
Gates had been widely expected to testify against Manafort, but Asonye caused a brief stir in the courtroom when he put a question mark over whether the prosecution would call him when asked by Judge Thomas Ellis. As reporters and news interns bolted from the courtroom to relay the news to TV crews waiting outside, Asonye quickly added that the uncertainty was not unique to Gates but applied to all the prosecution’s witnesses.
Much of the government’s evidence passed with little objection or cross examination from Manafort’s lawyers, though Judge Ellis did interject at several points. When the government sought to introduce pictures of Manafort’s extensive and expensive wardrobe into evidence, Ellis chided Andres with a question: “The government doesn’t want to prosecute someone for wearing nice clothes, do they?”
Ellis also took issue with the prosecution’s intent to describe Manafort’s former political consulting clients in Ukraine as “oligarchs.” “An oligarchy is just despotic power exercised by a privileged few,” noting that some might consider wealthy donors like liberal financier George Soros and the conservative billionaire Koch brothers to be oligarchs. Use of the O-word would imply that Manafort “associated with despicable people and therefore he’s despicable,” adding “that’s not the American way.”
Manafort himself showed little emotion, occasionally flashing a smile towards a front row of family and well wishers that included his wife, Kathleen, and Jason Maloni, his former spokesman.