Jury begins deliberating in Trump Organization's criminal tax fraud trial

NEW YORK, Dec 5 (Reuters) – Jurors in the Trump Organization's tax fraud trial started deliberating on Monday, following four weeks of testimony about executive pay practices at Donald Trump's real estate company that prosecutors said amounted to a criminal scheme that went on for at least 15 years.

The former U.S. president's company was charged in 2021 with paying personal expenses for some executives without reporting the income, and compensating them as if they were independent contractors. Its longtime chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, pleaded guilty and testified for the prosecution.

Trump, who last month announced a third run for the presidency in 2024, was not charged in the case. In instructing jurors on the law before deliberations began, Justice Juan Merchan in New York state court in Manhattan reminded them that they had pledged not to let their opinions about Trump influence their verdict.

"Donald Trump and his family are not on trial here before you," said Merchan. "You must set aside any bias or prejudice you may have in favor of or against Mr. Trump and his family."

Trump, a Republican, has called the charges politically motivated. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg is a Democrat as is his predecessor Cyrus Vance, who brought the charges last year.

The Trump Organization has pleaded not guilty, and has argued that Weisselberg, 75, acted on his own and for his own benefit. The company faces up to $1.6 million in fines if convicted.

Weisselberg admitted to concealing payments the company made for his luxury apartment, car payments and other personal expenses, as well as tuition for his grandchildren that Trump personally paid. He testified that he and other executives also received bonus payments as if they were independent contractors.

Before the jury entered the courtroom on Monday, Merchan ruled that it was fair for prosecutor Joshua Steinglass to have stated in his closing argument last week that Trump was aware of the scheme because the defense had sought to prove that Weisselberg and others kept Trump in the dark.

Merchan said that even though Trump – who owns the Trump Organization – is not on trial, his awareness could provide evidence that the company is guilty.

The judge also denied the defense's request to include an explanation about New York's gift tax in his instructions because he said it would confuse the jury. He said there was no evidence that the tuition payments Trump made for Weisselberg's grandchildren were a gift, as the defense argued.

The case is one of several legal troubles facing the 76-year-old Trump. He also faces Department of Justice probes into his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election and his removal of government documents from the White House after leaving office, as well as a state probe in Georgia over a push to reverse his election loss in that state. (Reporting by Luc Cohen in New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder, Alistair Bell and Grant McCool)

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