MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
In criminal court in Manhattan today, an executive who has worked for Donald Trump for decades pleaded guilty to a raft of felony financial crimes. Allen Weisselberg will be sentenced to five months in prison and five years probation - this in exchange for testifying against his own employer, the Trump Organization. NPR's Ilya Marritz was in court this morning. He's here now. Hey there.
ILYA MARRITZ, BYLINE: Good to be here.
KELLY: OK. So this was a long time coming. Set the scene for us at the courthouse this morning.
MARRITZ: So Allen Weisselberg arrived in court about 25 minutes early, flanked by his lawyers. He wore a face mask, so it was hard to read any expression. Anyone who watches a show like "Law And Order" would recognize this courthouse - dimly lit, marble-lined corridors. All kinds of criminal defendants pass through in the course of a day. And for nearly one hour, the judge in this case, Juan Merchan, reviewed the elements of the case, reminded Weisselberg of his rights, and then had him plead guilty to all 15 counts against him, including conspiracy, grand larceny and falsifying business records. We heard a lot of, yes, Your Honor, yes, Your Honor, as Weisselberg affirmed the individual facts of his crimes.
KELLY: So 15 counts, and these were for crimes that went on for a long time, for years.
MARRITZ: Yes, 16 years, from the early seasons of "The Apprentice" to Trump's time in the White House to even his post-presidency. This was a scheme by Weisselberg and allegedly his employer, the Trump Organization, to evade taxes by hiding compensation through undeclared benefits like car leases and private school tuition. In exchange for admitting those crimes and paying almost $2 million in back taxes and penalties, Weisselberg has this plea agreement. So he will testify against the Trump Organization when it goes to trial later this year. And if he does so truthfully, he will be sentenced to relatively little jail time. It may actually be reduced to about 100 nights in prison.
KELLY: OK, so Weisselberg pleads guilty. That resolves his own legal jeopardy. What does it mean for the Trump Organization?
MARRITZ: It's going to make it much harder for the Trump Organization to defend itself if and when it goes on trial, as is scheduled this fall. Allen Weisselberg has now admitted to crimes, and so that's official. These crimes happened. The question is whether the Trump Organization participated in them. Prosecutors have mountains of documents. And it's easy to imagine them showing spreadsheets or pay stubs to the jury and asking Allen Weisselberg to decode whatever crime it is that they may show. If the Trump Organization is convicted, it will then become a felon in the eyes of the law. And that could scare off some business partners, and it could come with stiff penalties.
KELLY: And for Weisselberg, so he's admitted to crimes - got it. Is he fully cooperating at this point?
MARRITZ: Not in the way that investigators originally had hoped. For months, they'd been trying to get him to flip and really show them the goods, be their guide as they investigate Trump finances. That didn't happen. But the plea agreement does spell out some very specific ways that Weisselberg will have to help the prosecutors. That's mainly testifying truthfully at trial about those crimes and the Trump organization's role in them as they were spelled out in court today.
KELLY: What about former President Trump himself? He has not been charged by the Manhattan D.A. What's it mean for him?
MARRITZ: Trump's name came up twice in today's hearing, both times in connection with a ledger of his expenses. And for me, that really underlined the great tension running through the district attorney's case here. We already know from the indictment that Donald Trump allegedly personally paid private school tuition for Allen Weisselberg's family members out of his own bank account. And we know that he personally benefited from this scheme to avoid taxes. And that's because he owns the Trump Organization. And these crimes resulted in the company paying less in taxes. And yet he has not been charged. And a grand jury that was examining his role in all of this was allowed to lapse this spring. If Donald Trump avoids consequences here, that would fit a pattern that we've already seen. The people around Trump do often get held accountable. He does not.
KELLY: Yeah. I'm thinking of the long list of people around Trump who have been accused of crimes. Many of them have been convicted - Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, Roger Stone. The list goes on. What sets Allen Weisselberg and today's developments apart?
MARRITZ: It's the length of his relationship. Allen Weisselberg worked for the Trump Organization for almost 50 years. He was hired by Donald Trump's dad, Fred Trump, and he rose through the company as Donald Trump reshaped the company in his image around luxury hotels and casinos and golf clubs. As a result, Allen Weisselberg is intimately familiar with the Trump family finances. No one knows Trump money better than him, maybe not even Trump. But this is a man who turns 75 this month. He is a grandfather. He clearly wanted to stay loyal. He could have flipped, and he didn't. But when he looked at his chances with a jury, he decided that taking a plea was in his interests. Some of the charges, if he were convicted, could have spelled years in prison.
KELLY: NPR's Ilya Marritz, thanks.
MARRITZ: You're welcome.
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