Editor’s Note: Jennifer Rodgers is a former federal prosecutor, adjunct professor of Clinical Law at NYU School of Law, lecturer-in-law at Columbia Law School and a CNN legal analyst. The opinions expressed here are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
For months – years, even – legal observers have been waiting for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office to conclude its investigation of Donald J. Trump and his family business with the filing of criminal charges. Finally, the wait is over. But, in part because the indictment does not charge the former President as an individual and partly because many segments of the investigation apparently continue, these charges may raise as many questions as they answer.
Thursday’s charges were brought against Allen Weisselberg, the longtime chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, and against certain corporate components of the company itself, based on what is described as a 15-year scheme to evade taxes on executive and employee compensation. According to the indictment, the Trump Organization provided part of its compensation in the form of rent-free apartments, car leases, cash bonuses and private school tuition, but failed to properly account for this income, and did not pay required federal, state and local taxes on it. Weisselberg, a recipient of these benefits, allegedly also failed to pay personal taxes on this income, as part of the conspiracy.
Weisselberg and the Trump Organization pleaded not guilty to the charges. The Trump Organization further called the prosecution a political ploy, saying Weisselberg was being used as a “pawn in a scorched-earth attempt to harm the former president.”
But now that this long-awaited indictment has been unsealed, what does it tell us about these charges and about the possibility of charges for additional crimes and against additional defendants?
First, the charges are more serious than prior reporting suggested. Stories in the last few days undersold the case by describing it as one about fringe benefits, of the sort rarely prosecuted. While it is true that this is a case about unreported income and the failure to pay taxes on it, its scope is greater than many expected, for a few reasons. The scheme charged is a 15-year conspiracy to evade taxes, described as involving numerous Trump Organization executives and employees, only one of whom has been charged so far.
The indictment alleges the commission of other crimes in addition to the scheme to defraud in the first degree, namely grand larceny in the second degree – the second most serious white-collar crime available to state prosecutors in New York – along with various charges for falsifying records. And District Attorney Cyrus Vance has alleged that defendant Weisselberg not only evaded New York State and New York City taxes, but also evaded federal taxes, increasing the potential tax loss amount significantly. (While state authorities cannot charge the federal crime of evading federal taxes directly under state law, they can use the federal loss amount in charging the intended scope of the scheme to violate state law, as they have done here). All of this means that this is a bigger case, and a bigger headache for Trump and his company, than what was first believed.
We also know from Thursday’s indictment and related proceedings that, as has been previously reported, Weisselberg is not cooperating with the investigation. And, given his central role in the charged scheme and other aspects of the Trump Organization’s business that are still reportedly under investigation, he almost certainly still has a chance at a cooperation deal – and many a defendant has changed his tune when the relatively vague notion of a potential criminal case is replaced by the cold, hard, reality of being arrested, handcuffed, fingerprinted and taken to court.
But I think that Weisselberg’s importance as a cooperator may not be as great as it previously seemed. Particularly given the language in the indictment pointedly describing other participants in the scheme, it appears at least possible, if not likely, that other charges will be forthcoming whether or not Weisselberg cooperates, because prosecutors either have other important witness testimony, or they can make their case using documentary evidence, or a combination of both.
Get our free weekly newsletter
One thing that was not clarified Thursday is whether the other parts of the ongoing investigations will ever result in charges. Vance, the Manhattan district attorney, and New York State Attorney General Letitia James have been investigating bank fraud and tax fraud related to inflating and deflating assets, as well as the hush money payments to adult movie actress Stormy Daniels. The indictment did not shed light on these issues.
While many unknowns persist, there is certainty on one point: as Trump’s strong reaction to these developments demonstrates, Thursday’s indictment is very bad news for the former president, with potentially much more bad news to come.