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Wednesday, February 21, 2024
Feb. 21, 2024

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Donald Trump returns to court as his defense expert asserts there’s no evidence of accounting fraud

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Donald Trump speaks after arriving at New York Supreme Court, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023, in New York.
Donald Trump speaks after arriving at New York Supreme Court, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez) Photo Gallery

NEW YORK (AP) — Former President Donald Trump returned to his New York civil fraud trial as a spectator Thursday after a month of assailing the proceedings from afar.

With testimony winding down after more than two months, the Republican 2024 presidential front-runner showed up to watch a defense expert witness, accounting professor Eli Bartov, who reviewed the Trump financial statements at issue in the case and said he found no evidence of accounting fraud.

Bartov, who teaches at New York University, testified that Trump’s financial statements didn’t violate accounting principles, and he suggested that anything problematic — like a huge year-to-year leap in the estimated value of the his Trump Tower penthouse — was simply an error.

“My main finding is that there is no evidence whatsoever of any accounting fraud,” Bartov testified. Trump’s financial statements, he said, “were not materially misstated.”

Trump himself is scheduled to take the stand Monday, for a second time. During a morning break, he praised Bartov’s testimony and assailed the case, which threatens to disrupt the real estate empire that vaulted him to fame and the White House.

“Like everyone else he said, ‘What are we doing here? What are we doing here?’” Trump said outside the courtroom. “This is a political witch hunt. This is meant to influence an election.”

Even while campaigning to reclaim the presidency and fighting four criminal cases, Trump is devoting a lot of attention to the New York lawsuit. He’s been a frustrated onlooker, a confrontational witness and a heated commentator outside the courtroom door.

The case is putting Trump’s reputation as a wealthy businessman on trial, with state lawyers alleging that he padded his net worth by billions and exaggerated the value of his many signature properties. Among other punishments, they are seeking to block him from doing business in his native state.

New York Attorney General Letitia James’ suit accuses Trump, his company and top executives including his sons Eric and Donald Trump Jr. of misleading banks and insurers by giving them financial statements full of inflated values for assets including skyscrapers, golf courses and Mar-a-Lago, the Florida club where he now lives.

The statements were provided to help secure deals — including loans at attractive interest rates available to hyperwealthy people — and some loans required updated statements each year.

Trump denies any wrongdoing, and he posits that the statements’ numbers actually fell short of his wealth. He also has downplayed the documents’ importance in getting deals, saying it was clear that lenders and others should do their own analyses. And he claims the case is a partisan abuse of power by James and Judge Arthur Engoron, both Democrats.

Bartov testified that statements of financial condition are “only a first step in a long and complex process” of determining asset valuations and making lending decisions. Relying on them alone is “completely misleading” and anyone that does so is “likely to reach the wrong decision,” he added.

State lawyers contend Trump and his co-defendants deceived lenders with his financial statements. But Bartov said credit reports compiled by Deutsche Bank, which listed lower amounts for Trump’s properties and net worth, showed that the bank did its own research and analysis and didn’t just rely on his word.

Trump has regularly railed about the case on his Truth Social platform.

Going to court in person affords him a microphone — in fact, many of them, on the news cameras positioned in the hallway. He often stops on his way into and out of the proceedings, which cameras can’t record, to expostulate and to cast various developments as victories.

His out-of-court remarks got him fined $10,000 Oct. 26, when Engoron decided Trump had violated a gag order that prohibits participants in the trial from commenting publicly on court staffers. Trump’s lawyers are appealing the gag order.

James hasn’t let Trump go unanswered, often — but not Thursday — showing up to court herself when he’s there and making her own comments on social media and the courthouse steps. Lawyers in the case have been told not to make press statements in the hallway, but the former president has been allowed to do so.

“Here’s a fact: Donald Trump has engaged in years of financial fraud. Here’s another fact: When you break the law, there are consequences,” her office wrote this week on X, formerly Twitter.

While the non-jury trial is airing claims of conspiracy, insurance fraud and falsifying business records, Engoron ruled beforehand that Trump and other defendants engaged in fraud. He ordered that a receiver take control of some of Trump’s properties, but an appellate court has held off on that order for now. That pause was extended indefinitely Thursday while the appeals process plays out.

At trial, James is seeking more than $300 million in penalties and a prohibition on Trump and other defendants doing business in New York.

It’s not clear exactly when testimony will wrap up, but it’s expected before Christmas. Closing arguments are scheduled in January, and Engoron is aiming for a decision by the end of that month.

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