Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team has repeatedly clashed in the Paul Manafort case with the Judge T.S. Ellis, who has refused to let prosecutors display photos of Manafort’s luxury purchases, urged them to hurry up their questions and has even reprimanded one lawyer for being impolite and not looking at the judge while speaking to him.
But on Thursday, Ellis admitted he was wrong — at least on one point — when he criticized prosecutors for having one of their witnesses, an expert IRS agent, in the room to hear other witness testimony.
Prosecutors had reminded Ellis following his scolding in front of the jury they had discussed allowing IRS revenue agent Michael Welch to sit in the courtroom.
“Put aside any criticism. I was probably wrong in that,” Ellis said to kick off the trial proceedings Thursday morning. “This robe doesn’t make me anything other than human.”
Welch testified that Manafort used his foreign income for purchases that included a yacht, horseback riding, Italian villa rental and cosmetic dentistry.
One of the more interesting dynamics in the trial of Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman has been the skirmishes between the judge and prosecutors. While many of them have been out of earshot of the jury, the judge has repeatedly expressed frustration with how the prosecution had presented its case against Manafort.
When Mueller’s team focused on Manafort’s lavish purchases, Ellis declared that it was not a crime to be rich, refusing to allow prosecutors to display pictures in the courtroom of his $15,000 ostrich jacket and other big-ticket items.
And in one remarkable exchange that the jury did not hear, Ellis told prosecutor Greg Andres to “look at me when you’re talking to me,” and then suggested Andres had tears in his eyes.
“There are not tears in my eyes, judge,” Andres responded.
“Well, they’re watery,” Ellis shot back.
At times, Ellis has also sided against the defense team, such as when he didn’t require former Manafort deputy Rick Gates to answer a question on Wednesday about whether he had four extramarital affairs, not just the one he disclosed the day before.
Prosecution nears the finish line
Prosecutors are nearing the end of their case against Manafort.
Mueller’s team expects to call a handful more witnesses before wrapping up its case by Friday.
The remaining witnesses include bankers and others familiar with Manafort’s real estate portfolio and debts, and they’re expected to dive into the gritty details of the prosecution’s case on bank and mortgage fraud.
The case is the first that Mueller’s team has brought to court as part of its investigation into Russian election interference in 2016. While the charges aren’t related to Manafort’s time on the campaign, the trial is being eyed closely by the President and his team as they negotiate a potential interview between Trump and Mueller’s team.
Manafort is charged with 18 counts of tax and banking crimes and has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
An Airbnb rental
Manafort’s “amazing full floor loft in Soho” disappeared from Airbnb during a monthlong period when he closed a $3.4 million mortgage on the New York property, after telling a bank it was a second home used by his family.
The Howard Street loft was listed on the Airbnb online vacation rental platform from January 2015 to late April 2016, according to Darin Evenson, Airbnb’s director of customer experience for North America. The property had two bedrooms and two baths and the title “amazing full floor loft.” Guests had access to the entire home for their stay, according to printouts of reservations and listings shown in court.
But there was a break from late February to early March 2016, where the property was no longer available for rent on Airbnb.
The Airbnb employee’s testimony appears to confirm one of the lies prosecutors allege Manafort told a bank as he sought money from it. Banks give more money toward properties used by their owners as residences — even second homes — than they do for rentals, and Manafort appears not to have disclosed income from the rental on his tax returns.
Five guests paid over $11,000 at one point to stay there, one reservation showed, renting the condo for 21 nights. Another reservation showed a four-night stay costing two guests close to $1,800.
The Airbnb travelers rated the condo five out of five.
Melinda James, a banker who testified earlier Thursday, said Manafort had described the property’s ownership as split between him, his wife and his daughter Jessica, who was then married to Jeff Yohai, now her now-ex-husband.
Yohai’s name was listed on the Airbnb account. Evenson testified that he was not aware whether Manafort was the host or owner.
Manafort had encouraged Yohai to convince an appraiser researching a mortgage application on the condo that “you and Jessica are living there,” according to an email the jury saw earlier Thursday.
The bank employees, in emails with Manafort and others, raised concerns they had about Manafort’s available cash in his business, the possibility that another property in New York already backed a loan and that the Soho condo was being rented on Airbnb, James testified. She reached out to Manafort and Gates repeatedly for clarity, and they assured the bank several times that their documents were correct.
Prosecutors say Manafort misrepresented his debts to Citizens Bank when securing the $3.4 million mortgage, and ultimately obtained the mortgage by attesting that the other property had no mortgages.