Manafort trial Day 5: Gates sings
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s star witness, Rick Gates, finally took the stand on Monday, incriminating his former boss Paul Manafort in multimillion-dollar tax evasion, bank fraud and hiding offshore accounts, while also admitting to stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars during a decade on Manafort’s payroll.
On the fifth day of Manafort’s federal trial in Alexandria, Virginia, Gates said that he took many of his actions at “Mr. Manafort’s direction,” admissions that go to the heart of charges lodged by Mueller against Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman.
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As he took the witness stand, Gates avoided eye contact with his former boss — even as Manafort stared down his former deputy — and instead looked at the jury, the judge and Mueller’s team of prosecutors. It was the first time the two lobbyist-consultants have been in the same room together since Gates agreed to cooperate with Mueller’s team in February.
Gates’ central roles in the 2016 Trump campaign and transition have made him a pivotal witness in Mueller’s ongoing inquiry. But he also was at Manafort’s side as the pair did lucrative lobbying and political consulting work on behalf of a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine years before they signed up with Trump’s campaign.
Gates explained to the court that he had pleaded guilty to conspiring against the U.S. as part of a scheme that included purposefully filing false tax returns on Manafort’s behalf and in which he also illegally failed to disclose that Manafort maintained foreign bank accounts.
“Were you involved in criminal activity?” Mueller prosecutor Greg Andres asked. “Yes,” Gates replied.
“Did you commit crimes with Mr. Manafort?” Andres asked. “Yes,” Gates again responded.
Gates said he was instructed by Manafort to give false information about Manafort’s income to both his bookkeepers and his tax accountants. He also followed Manafort’s instructions to reduce his U.S. income taxes by passing off as income a series of loans he had received from overseas.
The prosecution seemed eager to get Gates’ heaviest baggage in front of the jury quickly and on his first day on the witness stand. Manafort’s defense used its opening statement to accuse Gates of embezzling from Manafort’s firm. Under questioning from Andres, the witness readily admitted he’d taken money he wasn’t entitled to.
“In essence, I added money to expense reports and inflated expenses to receive the additional money,” Gates said. Asked to quantify the overcharges in dollars, Gates said: “I’d say it’s several hundred thousand.”
It also emerged that Manafort’s defense has Gates to thank for the key talking point it has seized on to impeach him. The former aide said he revealed the embezzlement to the government after cutting the his plea deal earlier this year.
“I made the government aware of [that] in my interviews,” he said, adding that there were about 20 such debriefings. Prosecutors were obliged to turn over to the defense any evidence the government had that could affect Gates’ credibility, including his statements about inflating expenses.
It was not immediately clear whether the expense account overcharges injured Manafort financially. Gates testified that expenses were generally charged to clients, like the wealthy men who funded Manafort’s work in Ukraine.
Gates testified for about an hour and 20 minutes on Monday afternoon during a session marked by several intense verbal clashes between U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis, who has been relentless in moving the trial along, and prosecutors, whose pent-up frustration with limits on their case boiled over.
At one point, the judge tried to limit the prosecution’s showing Gates‘ passport to ask about his travels. The judge told Andres to get “to the heart of the matter,” to which the prosecutor responded, “Judge, we’ve been at the heart. …”
Ellis cut him off. “Just listen to me. … Don’t speak while I’m speaking,” the judge said.
Gates’ testimony began by covering some basic ground for the jury: The 46-year-old political operative said he first met Manafort in 1995 at a Christmas party at Manafort’s home, when he was working as an intern at his lobbying firm. He stayed with Manafort’s firm until 1997, then partnered with him again from 2006 to 2016.
Without mentioning President Donald Trump by name, Gates said he had done “work for one of the presidential campaigns most recently.”
His relationship with Manafort, he said, was primarily professional and he considered himself “an employee of the firm.” That’s how he thought Manafort saw him, too. “Outside of business, we didn’t socialize,” Gates testified.
The two men over the years were often in contact daily, and they would meet at the firm’s Alexandria and New York offices, as well as Manafort’s homes in both cities.