Opening statements began Monday in the criminal trial of former President Donald Trump’s namesake family real estate business, which has been charged by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office with orchestrating a 15-year scheme to help certain executives evade taxes.
"This case is about greed and cheating," a prosecutor said Monday during an opening statement.
Two entities of the Trump Organization -- the Trump Corporation and the Trump Payroll Corporation -- have pleaded not guilty to charges they orchestrated a 15-year scheme to help certain executives evade taxes by paying a substantial amount of their personal expenses off-the-books, including rent, car leases and school tuition.
"The problem with doing it this way is that it's not legal," the prosecutor, Susan Hoffinger, said. "Doing it legally would have cost the Trump Corporation more."
One of the executive recipients, the Trump Organization’s longtime former chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, has pleaded guilty and agreed to be a star witness for the prosecution.
"Allen Weisselberg will give you the inside story of how he conducted this tax scheme with Jeffrey McConney," Hoffinger told the jury, referring to the Trump Organization's controller.
Prosecutors believe Weisselberg's guilt implicates the company because he was a "high managerial agent" entrusted to act on its behalf.
A defense attorney, Susan Necheles, told the jury it “makes no sense” to convict the Trump Organization’s two entities based on Weisselberg’s illegal conduct.
"The crimes that are charged in the indictment are all based on a claim that the Trump Corporation and the Trump Payroll Corporation are criminally liable because Allen Weisselberg cheated on his personal tax returns," Necheles said during an opening statement.
"The person at the Trump Corporation who was responsible for instructing that all of this income not be reported on W2s is none other than Mr. Weisselberg himself," Necheles said.
The Manhattan District Attorney's office said that between 2005 and 2018 Weisselberg received $1.7 million in income from the Trump Organization that he failed to report on payroll tax forms and that he failed to report on his income taxes.
The Trump Corporation paid Weisselberg's rent on a luxury apartment in Manhattan, his utilities, a Mercedes Benz for himself and one for his wife, according to the indictment.
"On top of all that, Donald Trump paid for his grandchildren's school tuition," Hoffinger said.
Of the more than half-dozen investigations that touch Trump, the trial in Manhattan State Supreme Court may pose the biggest threat so far to former President Trump and his family business.
A conviction could jeopardize the future of the company since many banks and businesses are prohibited from working with felons. Banks could call in loans. Business partners could cancel contracts.
While Trump is not charged, his name is expected come up repeatedly at trial because, Hoffinger said, he signed the checks that paid the school tuition of Weisselberg's grandchildren.
The evidence is being laid out as Trump campaigns in the run up to the midterm elections and while he is facing growing pressure from an array of criminal investigations.
A jury of eight men and four women agreed to put aside any personal opinions about Trump or his company and consider the evidence presented during a trial in state court that could last into December.
Weisselberg pleaded guilty to all 15 counts he faced, including conspiracy, criminal tax fraud, grand larceny and falsifying business records. Weisselberg said he skirted taxes on nearly $2 million in income, including fringe benefits like rent, luxury cars and private school tuition for his grandchildren.
A corporate tax fraud case was not what prosecutors were after. When they first filed charges against Weisselberg last summer, prosecutors hoped he would turn on Trump, sources have told ABC News, as part of a larger criminal investigation into the former president’s business practices that remains ongoing.
A corporate defendant cannot serve prison time. A conviction could require the Trump Organization to pay a maximum $10,000 fine on each count and, potentially, the taxes allegedly skirted.
Trump faces a half-dozen investigations into his business practices, Jan. 6, efforts to overturn the Georgia vote and the removal of documents with classification markings from the White House.