Prosecutors in New York on Thursday accused the Trump Organization, former U.S. President Donald Trump’s global real estate business empire, of carrying out a 15-year criminal “scheme to defraud” the government in a strategy to enrich top company executives with off-the-books compensation.
Trump's longtime trusted chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, the company's top official outside Trump's immediate family, was charged with fraud and tax crimes, allegedly avoiding taxes on $1.7 million in income.
Weisselberg, 73, surrendered to authorities early Thursday, after being told of the indictment against him, and later in the day made a brief court appearance. He pleaded not guilty and was released after the hearing but was required to hand over his passport after prosecutors described him as a "flight risk."
A Trump Organization attorney also pleaded not guilty on the company's behalf.
Kept returns private
The allegations are the newest chapter of a long-running investigation of Trump and his business practices and tax payments as he became a self-described billionaire, TV reality show host and, eventually, president.
Trump has long hidden his taxes from public view, defying the U.S. presidents' decadeslong tradition of releasing their annual tax returns for voters to look at. Some of Trump's returns from recent years were leaked, however, with New York Times reports showing that in recent years, Trump paid little or nothing in federal income taxes, writing off profits with legal business deductions.
Carey Dunne, a prosecutor with the Manhattan district attorney's office in New York, said in court that the charges revealed Thursday were related to an "off-the-books tax fraud scheme" that lasted for 15 years and allowed Trump Organization executives to get "secret pay raises" while not paying proper taxes.
The indictment did not allege wrongdoing by the 75-year-old former president, although the investigation is ongoing.
Trump, who has long assailed attacks on his signature business empire, issued a brief statement deriding the indictment.
"The political Witch Hunt by the Radical Left Democrats, with New York now taking over the assignment, continues," he said. "It is dividing our Country like never before!"
New York state Attorney General Letitia James, who is part of the investigation, along with New York City prosecutors, called the indictment "an important marker" in its investigation of the Trump Organization and Weisselberg.
"This investigation will continue, and we will follow the facts and the law wherever they may lead," James said.
Trump, often seen in company photos with Weisselberg standing nearby, once praised his aide for doing "whatever was necessary to protect the bottom line."
As the pace of the investigation seemingly picked up after Trump left office in January, some U.S. political and legal analysts suggested that Weisselberg, if faced with criminal charges, might offer evidence against Trump. But to date that has not happened.
'He will fight'
Prosecutors had been examining whether Weisselberg failed to pay taxes on lucrative benefits he was alleged to have received from Trump, including private school tuition for at least one of his grandchildren, free apartments and leased cars.
"He will fight these charges in court," his lawyers, Mary Mulligan and Bryan Skarlatos, said in a statement before Thursday's arraignment.
The Trump Organization said Weisselberg was being used as a "pawn in a scorched-earth attempt to harm the former president."