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Trump ordered to pay over $350M for business fraud

NEW YORK — The judge overseeing Donald Trump’s civil fraud trial issued him a $354.8 million penalty Friday and barred him from running a business in New York for three years, finding that for roughly a decade Trump orchestrated massive business fraud by falsely inflating his net worth to obtain favorable rates from banks and insurers.

The verdict, laid out in a 92-page ruling, strikes at the heart of an aspect of Trump’s identity that he harnessed in his 2016 presidential run: his personal wealth and his success as a businessman.

Trump and the other defendants in the case showed a “complete lack of contrition and remorse” that “borders on pathological,” Justice Arthur Engoron wrote.

The penalty caps a three-month trial in a lawsuit brought by New York Attorney General Tish James. It comes just weeks after a federal jury in a separate case ordered Trump to pay $83.3 million in damages to the writer E. Jean Carroll over defamatory statements he made while president in response to her rape accusation.

And combined with the $5 million penalty Trump was ordered to pay to Carroll in a separate trial last year, it means the frontrunner in the Republican presidential primary now owes $443.1 million in judgments. (Trump is appealing the earlier Carroll verdict, and he has vowed to appeal the verdicts in both the more recent Carroll trial and the civil fraud trial.)

It’s not clear if Trump has enough cash on hand to pay those penalties without selling any assets, especially because with the interest Engoron ordered Trump to pay, the total tab in the civil fraud case alone could amount to more than $450 million, according to the attorney general’s office.

In addition to the penalties aimed at Trump himself, Engoron imposed measures that may significantly alter the operations of the Trump family business, known as the Trump Organization. Engoron banned Trump’s two adult sons, Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr., who are executive vice presidents of the company, from running New York companies for two years and fined them more than $4 million each. And he ordered a court-appointed monitor to continue overseeing the company’s operations for another three years, requiring the company to seek her approval prior to submitting any financial disclosure to a third party.

Engoron also fined former Trump Organization executive Allen Weisselberg $1 million.

Trump railed about the verdict on social media. A lawyer for Trump, Chris Kise, said the former president plans to appeal the verdict, calling the decision a “tyrannical abuse of power.”

“The Court today ignored the law, ignored the facts, and simply signed off on the Attorney General’s manifestly unjust political crusade against the front-running candidate for President of the United States,” Kise said in a statement.

James called the ruling “a tremendous victory for this state, this nation, and for everyone who believes that we all must play by the same rules — even former presidents.”

In a pretrial ruling last fall, Engoron found that Trump systematically inflated his assets on financial statements, so the trial focused largely on whether those fraudulent statements were used as a basis for banks like Deutsche Bank to give Trump preferential terms on loans that he wouldn’t have received if his net worth had been lower.

Because it was a bench trial, meaning there was no jury, Engoron alone decided the verdict and the scope of the penalties. James had asked the judge to issue a $370 million penalty and for a permanent ban on Trump doing business in New York.

In his written decision Friday, Engoron took aim not only at Trump and the other defendants’ actions, but also at their reaction to the accusations contained in the lawsuit.

“Defendants did not commit murder or arson. They did not rob a bank at gunpoint. Donald Trump is not Bernard Madoff. Yet, defendants are incapable of admitting the error of their ways. Instead, they adopt a ‘See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ posture that the evidence belies.”

James’ case included accusations that Trump’s financial statements overvalued several flagship properties, including his own triplex apartment in Trump Tower. According to evidence presented during the trial, Trump’s financial statements claimed the apartment was 30,000 square feet, when the true size was just under 11,000 square feet. James’ lawyers introduced a document Trump signed in 1994 that provided the true size of the property.

Engoron also found that Trump’s valuation of his Florida property Mar-a-Lago was fraudulent from 2011 to 2021 because his financial documents based the valuation on the premise that it could be sold to an individual as a private residence, even though its deed prohibited such use. “There is no legal gray area surrounding the permanent nature of the deed restrictions,” Engoron wrote.

Trump’s primary defense, which he has repeated publicly and which he invoked during an angry and rambling turn on the witness stand, is that his financial statements contained “very, very powerful” disclaimers and therefore weren’t intended for use by banks or insurers.

The trial in state court in Manhattan was the first trial Trump attended since leaving office and the first at which he testified. Trump’s adult children, Eric, Donald Jr. and Ivanka, also testified.

The trial was at times a raucous affair, punctuated by Trump and his lawyers’ repeated criticism of the judge’s principal law clerk, whom they disparaged as an improper influence on the judge and biased against the defense. Those criticisms, particularly a social media message Trump posted featuring a photo of the clerk, prompted the judge to implement a pair of gag orders — one barring Trump from speaking about the clerk and the other preventing his lawyers from doing so.

The judge found Trump violated the gag order twice, fining him a total of $15,000. In evaluating the second violation, Engoron called Trump to the witness stand to testify, an unexpected turn that resulted in the judge finding that Trump was “not credible” as a witness.

In addition to his focus on the clerk, Trump frequently attacked Engoron himself throughout the trial, both in social media messages and to the judge’s face. During his testimony, Trump suggested one of Engoron’s pretrial rulings was “very stupid” and told him, “It’s a terrible thing you’ve done. You know nothing about me.” Trump continually ignored the judge’s repeated instructions to provide direct answers to questions, instead giving rambling responses that often sounded more like clips of Trump’s campaign rallies.

In his written decision on Friday, Engoron said he also found Trump testimony about the case itself to be unpersuasive.

“Overall, Donald Trump rarely responded to the questions asked, and he frequently interjected long, irrelevant speeches on issues far beyond the scope of the trial,” Engoron wrote. “His refusal to answer the questions directly, or in some cases, at all, severely compromised his credibility.”

The trial also featured testimony from Trump’s former fixer-turned-foe Michael Cohen, who said that at Trump’s instruction, he and Weisselberg “reverse engineered” Trump’s net worth to meet their boss’s demand for inflated figures.

Though Trump’s lawyers took aim at Cohen, questioning him at length about having pleaded guilty to campaign finance crimes and perjury in federal cases, Engoron gave him the benefit of the doubt. In what, financial penalties aside, might inflict the biggest blow to Trump’s ego, Engoron wrote that he found Cohen’s testimony “credible.”

“A less-forgiving factfinder might have concluded differently, might not have believed a single word of a convicted perjurer,” Engoron wrote. “This factfinder does not believe that pleading guilty to perjury means that you can never tell the truth. Michael Cohen told the truth.”

At the end of the trial, Trump even delivered his own unsanctioned closing argument in defiance of Engoron’s efforts to corral the former president, accusing Engoron of having his “own agenda” and berating the judge.

But in his ruling, Engoron got the last word — and seized the opportunity to finally curtail Trump.

“Defendants’ refusal to admit error — indeed, to continue it, according to the Independent Monitor,” Engoron wrote, “constrains this Court to conclude that they will engage in it going forward unless judicially restrained.”

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Author: POLITICO