Judge in Manafort trial concedes mistake after berating Mueller’s prosecutors
The judge overseeing Paul Manafort’s trial, who has berated prosecutors daily for perceived missteps and slights, told the jury Thursday to ignore one of his outbursts, saying he was “probably wrong.”
U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III, a 78-year-old jurist with a reputation for being tough on lawyers in his courtroom, showed none of the temper he has flashed throughout the trial, now in its second week in Alexandria, Va., and instead instructed the jury to disregard his remarks made the day before excoriating prosecutors for allowing an expert government witness to sit in the courtroom before he testified.
Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman , is accused of bank fraud and tax evasion. It’s the first trial to emerge from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether any of Trump’s associates conspired with those efforts, though Manafort’s case is not about those issues.
During Wednesday’s dust-up, Assistant U.S. Attorney Uzo Asonye pointed out that the judge had previously told prosecutors the witness could sit in the courtroom, and the judge shot back: “I don’t care what the transcript said. Maybe I made a mistake. Don’t do it again.”
Overnight, prosecutors filed a motion with the court asking the judge to tell the jury to ignore that criticism.
“While mistakes are a natural part of the trial process, the mistake here prejudiced the government by conveying to the jury that the government had acted improperly and had violated court rules or procedures,” the prosecutors wrote.
On Thursday morning, the judge told the jury, “I may well have been wrong,” adding that he had not read the court transcript. “I was probably wrong,” he said.
“This robe doesn’t make me any more than a human,” Ellis said, concluding, “Any criticism of counsel should be put aside — it doesn’t have anything to do with this case.”
Ellis’s eruptions have been noticed inside and outside the courtroom. Stephen Gillers, a professor of legal ethics and evidence at New York University, said the judge was right to make a corrective statement to the jurors.
“The jury is very sensitive to what it perceives, correctly or not, to be the judge’s view of the case,” Gillers said. “A jury of lay people is going to be encouraged to reach a belief which could well be incorrect — that the judge knows who should win, and through his behavior he’s telegraphing that belief. And that’s why it’s critical that any judicial admonition, even mild ones, occur outside the jury’s presence.”
Ellis had repeatedly chided prosecutors, both in front of the jury and out of their hearing, during the trial. He has had far fewer outbursts directed at defense lawyers, but prosecutors have been doing the bulk of the questioning so far.
Gillers said Ellis’s interruptions are “impeding the autonomy that the law grants to the advocates.”
After several days of testimony from the prosecution’s star witness, Manafort’s former right-hand man Rick Gates, the jury heard Thursday from bank employees and executives who testified about the alleged false claims Manafort made to obtain millions of dollars in loans — the charges that carry the most potential prison time.
Prosecutors say that between 2010 and 2014, Manafort hid $15.5 million in overseas accounts, which he did not report to the IRS. He made that money doing political consulting in Ukraine, but when the work dried up in 2015, authorities say, he lied to secure bank loans to maintain his luxurious lifestyle.
Melinda James, a mortgage loan assistant at Citizens Bank, told jurors how Manafort obtained a $3.4 million cash-out refinance in 2016 on a property he owned in Lower Manhattan.
In applying for the loan, Manafort claimed that the property was a second home, but prosecutors introduced as evidence a 2015 tax return indicating the property generated about $100,000 in rental income.
One of Manafort’s defense lawyers, Jay Nanavati, said Gates was to blame for any errors in the loan application. Nanavati also suggested that, even though the property was listed for rent on Airbnb for more than a year, it could still be used as a primary residence.
Another witness, Citizens Bank Vice President Peggy Miceli, said Manafort would not have gotten the $3.4 million loan if the bank had known it was a rental property.
“The loan was way over the maximum” for an investment property rather than a home, she said.
The terms of Manafort’s loan also allowed him to withdraw cash from the bank, and Miceli testified that was not allowed for loans against investment properties.
Prosecutors expect to finish questioning their witnesses Friday. It was unclear how many witnesses Manafort’s defense team will present to the jury.
Tom Jackman contributed to this report.