Prosecutors: Judge Wrong to Scold Them in Front of Jury

rick gates manafort
This courtroom sketch depicts Rick Gates, right, answering questions by prosecutor Greg Andres as he testifies in the trial of Paul Manafort, seated second from left, at the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Va., Monday. Judge T.S. Ellis III presides as Manafort attorney’s including Kevin Downing, left, Thomas Zehnle, third from left, listen. (Dana Verkouteren via AP)

Prosecutors in Paul Manafort’s financial fraud trial said Thursday that the judge presiding over the former Trump campaign chairman’s case incorrectly admonished them in front of the jury, and they want him to correct the error.

Attorneys for special counsel Robert Mueller’s office said in a written filing that U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III was wrong to scold them on Wednesday for allowing an expert witness to remain in the courtroom during the trial. The filing comes on the eighth day of Manafort’s trial on charges of tax evasion and bank fraud.

Ellis had erupted on the prosecutors during the testimony of IRS agent Michael Welch, saying he hadn’t authorized Welch to watch the trial. Witnesses are usually excluded from watching unless allowed by the judge.

In their filing, prosecutors attached a transcript showing that in fact Ellis had approved the request a week before. They said his outburst prejudiced the jury by suggesting they had acted improperly and could undermine Welch’s testimony.

Welch told jurors Wednesday that Manafort didn’t report at least $16 million on his tax returns between 2010 and 2014. He also said Manafort should have reported multiple foreign bank accounts to the IRS in those years.

Prosecutors asked Ellis to instruct the jury that they hadn’t done anything improper in an attempt to repair any unfair prejudice.

Ellis has repeatedly tussled with prosecutors, interrupting them and pressuring them to hurry through their case.

He poked fun at himself Wednesday as he haggled with attorneys over the number and type of charts prosecutors could present during the testimony of the accountant.

“Judges should be patient. They made a mistake when they confirmed me. I’m not very patient, so don’t try my patience,” Ellis said.

The dispute with Ellis follows a dramatic three days in which Manafort’s protégé, Rick Gates, implicated his former boss in a yearslong financial scheme while also enduring stinging attacks on his character and credibility.

Gates has been the government’s star witness in Manafort’s financial fraud trial, testifying how, at the behest of his longtime boss, he helped conceal millions of dollars in foreign income and submitted fake mortgage and tax documents.

Defense lawyers saw an opening to undermine his testimony by painting him as dishonest, reminding jurors how he had lied to Mueller’s team while working out a plea deal for himself.

The testimony, stretching across three days and ending Wednesday, created an extraordinary courtroom showdown between the two former Trump campaign aides who were indicted together by Mueller but who have since opted for radically different strategies: Manafort is the lone American charged by Mueller to opt for trial, whereas Gates pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate by testifying against his former boss.

Neither man was charged in connection with their Trump campaign work, but the trial has nonetheless been closely watched by a president who insists Manafort was treated shabbily and who continues to fume publicly about Mueller’s investigation into potential ties between his associates and the Kremlin.

While Gates’ offered a firsthand account of a co-conspirator, prosecutors have largely sought to make their case through documentary evidence to demonstrate Manafort controlled offshore bank accounts containing millions of dollars. None of those accounts was reported to the IRS as required by U.S. law.