In the early morning hours of July 1, a handcuffed 73-year-old man was led into a New York courtroom to face a litany of charges, including grand larceny. Detectives were visibly holding his arms behind him.
Was this use of force necessary? The defendant, Allen Weisselberg, is not physically imposing. As an elderly first-time offender, there was little expectation he would overpower his captors and bolt out of the courtroom.
No, the purpose of the handcuffed defendant’s “perp walk” had nothing to do with any physical threat he posed. Instead, it had everything to do with the man Weisselberg worked for: former President Donald Trump.
New York Attorney General Letitia James was ecstatic when a grand jury indicted Weisselberg, the CFO of the Trump Organization, charging him and Trump’s namesake company with tax crimes and conspiracy. After all, in her campaign for attorney general in 2018, James promised to prosecute Trump and his associates. The perp walk gave her and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. the desired “photo op” to pander to Trump’s many critics in New York and throughout the country.
Essentially, Weisselberg and other unindicated co-conspirators stand accused of keeping two sets of books – one for use within the business and a second set presented to state and federal tax and regulatory authorities. The set intended for internal use included the value of benefits provided to corporate insiders, including Weisselberg. But the second set submitted to the authorities omitted them. Weissenberg is also charged with grand larceny and failing to pay more than $1 million in state, city, and federal tax since 2005.
Certainly, the crimes Weissenberg is accused of are serious, particularly the grand larceny charge, which can result in a maximum prison sentence of 15 years. But it’s remarkable what’s missing from the indictment. New York prosecutors have been probing Trump and his company since shortly after the 2016 election. They persuaded the Supreme Court to given them access to Trump’s tax returns and have collected millions of pages of documents through subpoenas issued to his business partners and vendors. But this blizzard of paperwork apparently wasn’t enough for the indictment to address the more sensational crimes Trump has been accused of by critics, including collusion with Russia, money laundering, making hush-money payments to strippers, misleading lenders and tax authorities, among others.
It seems obvious that Vance and James hope to persuade Weisselberg to turn on Trump and testify against him to avoid prison. In his role as CFO of the Trump Corporation, Weisselberg presumably has extensive knowledge of Trump’s business dealings, including arrangements that could be illegal.
But if that’s their expectation, they’re playing poker with a remarkably weak hand. None of the crimes Weisselberg is accused of have a compulsory prison sentence. Even if he’s convicted of all of them, he wouldn’t necessarily be imprisoned. If he is, at his age, it seems unlikely he’d face anywhere close to the maximum sentence.
If authorities aggressively pursued every business enjoying untaxed perks, a huge number of entrepreneurs would be languishing in prison. The acts Weisselberg are accused of are hardly a “sweeping and audacious” tax fraud scheme, as prosecutors allege.
We don’t know whether Weisselberg will turn on Trump. We do know that Weisselberg had this opportunity before, and evidently didn’t take the bait. In 2018, Weisselberg was subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury in an investigation into hush money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal just before the 2016 election. He was granted immunity for whatever role he played in the payments. The fact that Trump wasn’t indicted might be because the Department of Justice has a policy of not indicting sitting presidents. But it’s also possible that Weisselberg had nothing to offer prosecutors that could be used against Trump.
The whole affair reminds us of the famous “Where’s the Beef?” commercial from the fast-food chain Wendy’s first appearing on television in 1984. Our younger readers might not remember it, but this phrase is now commonly used in situations where the substance or validity of something isn’t clear.
Allen Weisselberg is no saint. But the decision of New York prosecutors to indict him for the offenses with which he’s been charged is questionable at best. If this is the best they can come up against Donald Trump and the Trump Corporation, where’s the beef, indeed?