Trump back in court as fraud trial probes who was responsible for his financial statements

Former President Donald Trump listens during his civil fraud trial at the State Supreme Court building in New York, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023. (Jeenah Moon/The New York Times via AP, Pool)

NEW YORK — The fraud trial that could block former President Donald Trump from doing business in New York drilled down Wednesday into the question of who — his company or hired accountants — bore responsibility for financial statements that the state calls fraudulent.

With accountants on the witness stand and Trump at the defense table for a third day, his attorneys tried to pin blame on accounting firms for any problems with the statements. But lawyers for New York Attorney General Letitia James sought to show that the accountants relied entirely on information supplied by Trump and his company.

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Outside the courtroom, meanwhile, Trump’s lawyers appealed a key pretrial ruling: that he engaged in fraud by puffing up the values of prized assets. The trial concerns six claims that remain in the lawsuit after that ruling.

Trump denies any wrongdoing. The trial comes as he leads the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, and the stakes are high for him and the real estate empire that launched him into public life.

The pretrial ruling that’s now under appeal could cost him control of Trump Tower and some other properties. At the trial, James is seeking a $250 million penalty and a prohibition on Trump doing business in New York.

At the heart of the case are the “statements of financial condition,” yearly snapshots of Trump’s wealth that were given to banks, insurers and others.

James says the statements were wildly inflated. His Trump Tower penthouse was claimed as nearly three times its actual size, for example, and his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida was hugely overvalued at as much as $739 million, she says.

Trump maintains that the statements actually underestimated the worth of luxury properties. He also emphasizes that the documents came with disclaimers that he characterizes as saying the numbers shouldn’t be trusted and lenders should do their own homework.

But accountant Donald Bender, who prepared the financial statements for years, testified Tuesday that the Trump Organization didn’t always supply all the information needed to accurately produce the documents. Another accountant, Camron Harris, testified Wednesday that his work on the 2021 statement involved checking information provided by Trump’s company for “obvious errors” and formatting it for presentation.

“We do not verify the accuracy of any of the information provided,” Harris said. His firm’s work agreement with Trump’s company specified that the accountants would “not express an opinion or any conclusion nor provide any assurance on the financial statements.”

Trump lawyer Jesus M. Suarez, in cross-examining Bender on Tuesday and Wednesday, sought to depict the accountant as sloppy.

Suarez showed video Wednesday of pretrial testimony in which Bender said he didn’t recall whether he consulted with any specialists when preparing Trump’s financial statements. Yet, Suarez noted, Bender’s firm told clients it might need specialists’ help to evaluate works of art, jewelry, and some types of securities in closely held businesses and real estate.

When Bender acknowledged on Tuesday that he missed a shift in information about the size of the Trump Tower penthouse, Suarez told the accountant that Trump’s company and employees were “going through hell” because “you missed it.”

Bender retorted that it was the Trump Organization’s mistake, “and we didn’t catch it.”

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