NEW YORK (AP) — Lawyers in Donald Trump’s civil fraud trial told the judge Wednesday they had no information to share regarding a key witness reportedly negotiating to plead guilty to perjury in connection with his testimony in the case.
Judge Arthur Engoron had asked state lawyers and defense counsel to provide him with letters by Wednesday “detailing anything you know” about the situation involving witness and co-defendant Allen Weisselberg, the former longtime chief financial officer at Trump’s company, the Trump Organization.
The New York Times reported last week that Weisselberg was in negotiations with the Manhattan district attorney’s office to plead guilty to perjury and “admit that he lied on the witness stand” when he testified at the civil fraud trial in October. The Times cited “people with knowledge of the matter.”
Two people familiar with the matter told The Associated Press that Manhattan prosecutors were weighing a potential perjury charge against Weisselberg. The people were not authorized to speak publicly and did so on condition of anonymity.
Alina Habba, the lawyer representing Weisselberg in the civil fraud case, told Engoron she does not represent him in connection with any criminal matters and has not spoken with the Manhattan district attorney’s office about his reported plea negotiations or a potential perjury charge.
Habba declined to provide further detail, citing professional ethical obligations. She cautioned the judge not to draw any “adverse inference” from her inability to respond.
Engoron did not ask a lawyer representing Weisselberg in criminal matters to respond to his inquiry. That lawyer, Seth Rosenberg, has not responded to repeated messages from the AP seeking comment.
Kevin Wallace, senior enforcement counsel in New York Attorney General Letitia James‘ office, said neither he nor other state lawyers working on the fraud case were involved in Weisselberg’s reported negotiations with the Manhattan district attorney’s office.
Wallace said they weren’t aware of what parts of his testimony were under scrutiny and did not known “whether Mr. Weisselberg has conceded that he testified falsely.”
But Wallace offered numerous examples of Weisselberg’s trial testimony being contradicted by other witnesses and evidence. They include the ex-CFO’s claims that he had little knowledge or awareness of how Trump’s penthouse at Trump Tower came to be overvalued on his financial statements based on figures listing it as three times its actual size, 10,996 square feet (1,022 square meters), Wallace said.
Wallace wrote that it was “hardly surprising” that Weisselberg may have lied on the witness stand and told Engoron he needn’t wait for a perjury charge or plea agreement to question Weisselberg’s credibility and disregard his entire two days of civil fraud trial testimony.
Weisselberg served 100 days in jail last year for dodging taxes on $1.7 million in perks from the Trump Organization, including a Manhattan apartment, Mercedes-Benz cars for him and his wife, and his grandchildren’s school tuition. He is still on probation. Trump is covering the cost of his legal bills.
A perjury charge could put Weisselberg, 76, behind bars again. Under New York law, perjury involving false testimony is a felony punishable by up to seven years in prison.
Wallace urged Engoron not to delay the civil fraud verdict, saying that doing so “would have the perverse effect” of rewarding Weisselberg and co-defendants, including Trump, for testimony that may have been false. Court officials have said Engoron’s verdict in the case, which involves allegations Trump inflated his wealth to dupe banks, insurers and others, should be ready by mid-February.
James is seeking at least $370 million in penalties plus other punishment for Trump, his company and other defendants. She wants Weisselberg permanently banned from the New York real estate industry and corporate executive jobs in the state and for him to be forced to give up his $2 million Trump Organization severance.
“The fact that a defendant who lacks credibility and has already been to prison for falsifying business documents may have also perjured himself in this proceeding or the preceding investigation is hardly surprising,” Wallace wrote. “If true, he should be held to account fully for his actions. But it should not delay a final decision and judgment.”
Defense lawyers said it was “unprecedented, inappropriate and troubling” for the judge to ask them to respond to what they regarded as a “speculative media account,” referring to the Times’ story.
Trump lawyer Christopher Kise called concerns about Weisselberg’s testimony the “latest much ado about nothing” in the case, suggesting they were meant “to create a media frenzy” and distract from weaknesses in the state’s case.
“Court decisions are supposed to be made based on the evidence at trial, not on media speculation,” Kise said.
The inquiry into Weisselberg’s testimony in the civil lawsuit is separate from the criminal case that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg brought against Trump last year over allegations that he falsified company records to cover up hush money payments. That trial is slated to begin in late March with Trump expected to be in court for a final pretrial hearing on Feb. 15.