Prosecutors faced an increasingly exasperated court during day two of Paul Manafort‘s trial in the Eastern District of Virginia.
Special counsel Robert Mueller‘s lieutenants spent the day repeatedly calling attention to Manafort’s well-heeled nature and penchant for luxury. Each time this line of discussion occurred, however, U.S. District Judge T. S. Ellis III knocked the inquiry right off the rails.
A housekeeping issue prior to the jury’s entrance set the tone.
Judge Ellis brought up an evidentiary issue regarding the testimony of first witness Daniel Rabin, one of Manafort’s long-serving associates in the Ukraine. Ellis made it clear that he didn’t want an excess amount of time spent on going through exhibits to belabor the two basic points the government was expected to prove. Rather, he said, “Just ask him the question! You don’t want them leafing through memos.”
The judge’s sarcasm–memos aren’t likely to be leafed through during testimony regardless–was prescient. Each time a witness was called by the prosecution, government attorneys essentially had them leafing through page after paragraph (after page after paragraph…) of evidence.
Witness number two tested the court’s theory (and patience) in this regard.
FBI Special Agent Matthew Mikuska was the “seizing agent” who took part in the July raid on Manafort’s Alexandria condominium. After being allowed to recount the day of the search warrant in excruciating detail, Judge Ellis grew weary of government attempts to have Mikuska explain various documents he was only familiar with due to his presence at the execution of the search warrant.
On top of that, Mikuska was completely unaware of how the FBI gained access to a spare key for Manafort’s apartment and the entry fob for Manafort’s locked garage. Without anyone commenting directly on this, Mikuska’s admission made waves through the court. One juror looked particularly annoyed by the news and later laughed when Judge Ellis said Mikuska wasn’t qualified to comment on a luxury clothing label affixed to one of Manafort’s suits.
In fact, it was mostly Mikuska’s testimony that led Judge Ellis to begin his multiple lectures as to why the government can’t tar and feather Manafort based on his wealth and spending habits alone. Or, rather, the prosecution’s repeat attempts to have the special agent testify about those documents which mostly showed nothing but lavish purchases by the Manafort family.
The defense did get one rare ding from the court. When asked how FBI employees were dressed on the day of the raid, Mikuska eventually meandered his way toward describing “a comfortable undergarment.” This detail was just enough for Ellis to interject with a demand that all sides wrap things up viz. Mikuska. Then he added, ” I don’t think it matters if they wore bulletproof vests or not.”
But as multiple media have noted, including Law&Crime’s Matt Naham, the most-reported story of the day was Ellis’ tense exchanges with prosecutors–almost all of which focused on the aforementioned demand not to drone on about Manafort’s wealth and spending.
Judge Ellis, on his own accord, shut down any attempt to introduce multiple photos of Manafort’s “closets full” of suits or clothing generally. After sustaining a defense objection, Ellis explained that the government had two things to prove: (1) that Paul Manafort directly diverted income from his business to his own personal use without claiming it on his taxes; and (2) attempted to hide this by use of offshore accounts.
Ultimately, though this happened early on, one exhibit was not allowed into evidence because it only showed Manafort’s “lavish lifestyle,” according to the judge. Which, he said, under Federal Rule of Evidence 402, made it “Not relevant [and unfair.” Ellis continued:
Enough is enough. We don’t convict people because they’re rich and throw their money around…To parade all of this is unnecessary, irrelevant and could be unfairly prejudicial.
Similar sentiments were expressed at least a dozen times in total–all directed toward the prosecution’s apparent fixation with stating and re-stating dollar amounts–often after Judge Ellis had asked them to stop doing exactly that.
As Courthouse News‘ Brandi Buchman noted, there was an infuriating (to the judge) discussion about a pergola built for one of Manafort’s daughters. Judge Ellis lauded the “exquisite detail” summoned for the testimony, but slammed it as totally irrelevant.
There was also another variation of the suit-related upbraiding. After chiding the prosecution for using an FBI-prepared chart instead of their own work, Judge Ellis used an explanatory tone to note why another piece of evidence wouldn’t be published for all to see on the closed-circuit court screens, “Because we don’t want to prosecute people because they wear nice suits, do we?”
[image via Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images]