Manafort trial's star witness Rick Gates takes the stand

It is becoming clear that the case against Paul Manafort will be based heavily on the prosecution's argument that jurors should trust the word of an admitted crook.  After some waffling, the team of prosecutors, assembled by Robert Mueller to try Manafort on financial crimes unrelated to President Trump, put his former employee Rick Gates on the stand yesterday.

As Politico reporters Darren Samuelson and Josh Gerstein wrote, "Mueller's decision to call Gates at the start of the second week of the trial was something of a surprise."  Perhaps Judge Ellis's warning last week that they "can't prove conspiracy without him" had something to do with the decision.

From the start of the trial, Manafort's lawyers have been stressing the unreliability of Gates.

Manafort's defense used its opening statement to accuse Gates of embezzling from Manafort's firm.  Under questioning from [prosecutor] 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."

So he is a thief who cut a deal with prosecutors for leniency in return for testifying against Manafort.  Judge Ellis himself has stated that the goal of convicting Manafort is to squeeze him to make a similar deal for leniency and implicate President Trump.

Gates is claiming that, in addition to stealing money covertly, he also was faithfully obeying Manafort's directives in filing false tax documents:

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.

I would expect that defense counsel, when they get a chance to cross-examine Gates, will claim that in order to hide his own embezzlement, Gates falsified documents without telling Manafort.

A second prosecution witness, accountant Cindy Laporta, also is testifying under a grant of immunity for her admitted crimes:

Laporta said Friday that she filed tax returns for Manafort and his businesses that she did not think were true.  Defense lawyer Kevin Downing pressed her Monday on whether she'd gone to Manafort directly when she thought information Gates was providing was inaccurate or incomplete.

"I didn't do that," she said.  "I think Mr. Manafort, in most instances, it was clear that Mr. Manafort knew what was going on."

When Downing suggested that Laporta didn't do anything about her concerns, she insisted that was wrong. "I did raise issues," she said.

Laporta said she'd raised those concerns with Gates.

"I'm sure he reacted well to that," Downing said sarcastically.

"He didn't respond," Laporta said.

Judge Ellis spoke up yesterday during Gates's testimony.  NBC News:

Photo credit: CNN.

During prosecutor Greg Andres's questioning of Rick Gates, Judge T.S. Ellis stepped in a few times to question the prosecution.  Andres asked Gates to tell the jury the net worth of Ukrainian businessman Rinat Akhmetov, one of Manafort's clients.  Judge Ellis directed Gates not to answer the question and told Andres to tailor his questioning to the charges.  A few minutes later, Andres was walking Gates through one of his passports.  Judge Ellis spoke up and said loudly, "Let's get to the heart of the matter."  "Your honor, we've been at the heart of the matter," Andres said before Ellis could finish his directive.

"Don't speak when I'm speaking," Ellis said sternly.  When Andres continued his questioning, Ellis again interjected.  "Let's find a way to expedite this," he said.  He then called both sides to the front of the courtroom for a bench conference.  When the conference ended, Ellis told Andres to continue his line of questioning and that he didn't overrule anything.  Ellis had last week forbidden the prosecution to use the word "oligarch" when describing the Ukrainian businessmen that Manafort worked with.  He has continually pressured the prosecution to cut shorten [sic] the length of their witness list and testimony.

Judge Ellis, whose court is proud of its reputation as a "rocket docket" that moves trials along speedily, has repeatedly shown impatience with prosecution's attempts to introduce facts that might prejudice jurors but do not directly relate to the charges at hand.

If jurors do not convict Manafort, as may be possible, we can expect a full-throated attack on Judge Ellis, a Reagan appointee.

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