Judge T.S. Ellis, Robert Mueller prosecutors at odds over witness in Paul Manafort trial
Two heated arguments between Judge T.S. Ellis III and prosecutors from special counsel Robert Mueller’s team overshadowed a largely unremarkable Wednesday in the financial-fraud trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
During afternoon testimony, prosecutor Uzo Asonye asked Judge Ellis whether IRS agent Michael Welch, who had reviewed Mr. Manafort’s tax filings, could testify as an expert witness. That would allow Mr. Welch to offer his opinion to the court instead of limiting his testimony to the factual record.
Mr. Asonye then disclosed that Mr. Welch had been sitting in the courtroom, watching Mr. Manafort’s trial play out.
Judge Ellis lost his temper at Mr. Asonye, yelling that he prohibits all witnesses from observing the proceedings and thought he had done so in the Manafort case.
Mr. Asonyne responded that he thought experts were allowed to watch the trial, but Judge Ellis insisted he bars that practice too.
“Let me clear, I don’t care what the transcript said ... don’t do it again,” Judge Ellis barked.
Ultimately, Judge Ellis did allow Mr. Welch to testify, but issued a stern warning to Mr. Asonye and other prosecutors on Mr. Mueller’s team.
“I want you to remember, don’t do that again,” he snapped. “When I exclude witnesses, I mean everybody.”
It was the day’s second blow-up between Judge Ellis and the Mueller team.
Earlier, he exchanged words with prosecutor Greg Andres, who was seeking to show jurors some charts detailing how money flowed from offshore accounts controlled by Mr. Manafort to his creditors in the U.S.
The next witness, an FBI accountant, was to testify about the charts. Mr. Manafort’s attorney’s objected, however, saying the chart merely repeated evidence presented by other witnesses.
The prosecutor protested, telling Judge Ellis that the agent spent a great deal of time putting the charts together.
“It isn’t relevant that she spent her life doing it,” the judge shot back.
“You can express your gratitude to her and so can the Department of Justice,” Judge Ellis said, drawing laughter from the courtroom.
Judge Ellis, who had been badgering prosecutors to speed up their case, told Mr. Andres that he needed to “focus sharply.”
“As a concession to the shortness of life, we need to get it done,” he snapped.
A visibly frustrated Mr. Andres said, “we have been focused sharply for a long time.”
Manafort attorney Richard Westling said he would write a stipulation for the jurors regarding one of the charts.
Mr. Andres became more flustered, telling Judge Ellis he was “at a loss” as to why the defense would offer a stipulation now. He said Mr. Manafort’s attorneys have had the chart for about a month.
It would be quicker to let the FBI agent testify instead of writing a stipulation, Mr. Andres said.
Judge Ellis ultimately let Mr. Andres question the agent, but cautioned that he would hear any objections from the bench.
“Neither side is going to profit,” Judge Ellis said over the decision to hear objections from the bench.
He then urged Mr. Andres to proceed quickly with the FBI agent.
“Judges should be patient,” Judge Ellis said. “They made a mistake when they confirmed me.”
The sniping between Judge Ellis and prosecutors has been a recurring theme in the Manafort trial. Earlier this week, Judge Ellis suggested Mr. Andres was crying during a bench conference. When Mr. Andres said he wasn’t, Judge Ellis told him his eyes were “watery.”
During testimony, Mr. Welch and the FBI accountant, Morgan Magionos, painstakingly presented how Mr. Manafort hid his money in overseas accounts. They said more than $60 million gushed into Mr. Manafort’s foreign accounts between 2010 and 2014, but the former Trump-campaign chairman failed to report nearly $16 million of that income to the IRS.
Ms. Magionos told the jury that Mr. Manafort used more than 30 different offshore accounts and three types of currencies to hide that income from the IRS, all while using nearly $15 million of it to pay for expensive cars, rugs and clothing over a five-year period.
The testimony appeared to bolster prosecutors’ argument that Mr. Manafort used the foreign accounts to live a life of luxury, but avoid paying taxes. All the money, the witnesses testified, was earned from his lobbying work on behalf of politicians in Ukraine.
Mr. Manafort has pleaded not guilty.
Ms. Magionos methodically detailed dry financial documents, diligently retracing how much money came and went through Mr. Manafort’s foreign accounts. For example, in 2012, Mr. Manafort earned about $31 million from Ukranian politicians, but he also spent more than $9 million on personal items, she said.
Presenting the jurors with charts and financial records, Ms. Magionos tracked the money flowing from bank accounts in Cyprus, the Grenadines and Britain to Mr. Manafort’s creditors in the United States.
Mr. Welch, meanwhile, rattled off hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses that sounded personal in nature, but he conservatively counted as business expenses because he had no evidence to the contrary. Those expenses included $49,000 to rent an Italian villa, $45,000 for cosmetic dentistry, $19,800 for a riding academy and 132,000 euros paid to a yacht company.
Mr. Welch told the jurors that Mr. Manafort should have reported the income to the IRS when it was received.
During cross examination of Ms. Magionos, Mr. Westling suggested Mr. Manafort’s name have been forged on some of the financial documents she discussed. Mr. Westling asked her compare Mr. Manafort’s signature on some of the financial documents she discussed with his signature on records seized during the FBI’s raid of his home.
The signatures appeared different. The name on the seized items was clear and appeared to be a full name while the other was sloppy and appeared to have only a few letters.
“It looks a bit different, but I’m no handwriting expert,” she said.