Donald Trump faces ‘show of strength’ in N.Y. prosecutor team-up

Patricia Hurtado, Greg Farrell and Chris Dolmetsch

Former president Donald Trump is facing a rare combination of forces by two New York prosecutors, a development that indicates criminal charges may be looming closer, legal experts said.

The announcement late Tuesday by New York Attorney General Letitia James that her civil probe of asset valuations by Trump and his real estate company now had a criminal component and is being coordinated with Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance amounts to a “show of strength” by the two prosecutors, said Bennett Gershman, a law professor at Pace University.

“I think it means we’re closer to the completion of the investigation,” said Gershman. “I think it means there very likely may be criminal charges. Why say something like this if you’re just puffing?”

Two lawyers from the attorney general’s office will be detailed to Vance’s Trump investigation, according to a person familiar with the matter. Vance already enlisted Mark Pomerantz, a top former federal prosecutor, to his team earlier this year. The district attorney’s investigation, which was originally focused on hush-money payments made before the 2016 election to women who claimed to have had sex with Trump years earlier, is now more broadly focused on business practices of the Trump Organization.

Trump greeted the news angrily on Wednesday, issuing a statement in which he denied wrongdoing and accused James and Vance of being “possessed, at an unprecedented level, with destroying the political fortunes of President Donald J. Trump.”

He said James and Vance were ignoring rising crime in New York in favor of a political vendetta. “As people are being killed on the sidewalks of New York at an unprecedented rate, as drugs and crime of all kinds are flowing through New York City at record levels, with absolutely nothing being done about it, all they care about is taking down Trump,” the former president said.

Spokespeople for Vance and James both declined to comment. Alan Garten, a lawyer for the Trump Organization, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University, said he couldn’t recall a previous major case in which the state attorney general had joined forced with a local district attorney.

“For Trump, it means the two offices can combine their different strengths,” he said.

The attorney general’s office rarely brings criminal prosecutions but has broad authority over white-collar offenses under the state’s securities law, the Martin Act.

“The A.G.’s office has much superior expertise in investigating and prosecuting financial crimes compared to a local D.A., even Vance, much of whose docket consists of crimes of violence and possession or sale of contraband,” said Gillers.

John Coffee, a professor at Columbia Law School, said the teaming up of James and Vance’s office “moves the goal posts ten yards closer for the prosecution” and would help counter what would likely be an army of defense lawyers on the other side.

“Trump will have the larger and better financed legal team and this reduces that advantage,” Coffee said.

A major focus of James’s investigation has been the Trump Organization’s appraisal of Seven Springs, a 212-acre estate in Westchester County, New York. Her office has been trying to determine whether the company gave an accurate valuation for the property when it served as the basis for about $21.1 million in tax deductions for donating a conservation easement for the 2015 tax year.

That overlaps somewhat with Vance’s broad investigation of possible bank, mortgage and tax fraud, so pooling resources makes practical sense, said John Moscow, a former senior prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney’s office.

“If the two sides work together, they only have to work once and they can share thoughts on what the evidence means,” he said. Cooperating also avoids potential problems with witnesses giving slightly different accounts to each office, said Moscow.

Most white-collar enforcement by the attorney general’s office consists of lawsuits seeking monetary penalties, as many of the criminal charges available under the Martin Act are relatively minor. James previously sued Trump’s charitable foundation for violating the state’s non-profit laws and got it to agree to dissolve. She more recently brought a similar case against the National Rifle Association.

District attorneys on white-collar cases have often employed the law in combination with stiffer charges like grand larceny and fraud, as Vance’s predecessor Robert Morgenthau did in successfully prosecuting former Tyco International Chief Executive Officer L. Dennis Kozlowski of looting his company in 2005.

Gershman said the district attorney’s ability to bring more criminal charges may have played a role in James’s decision to work with Vance.

“I can’t recall this kind of close teamwork by the A.G. and local county prosecutors,” he said. “Usually they are working in different areas and the A.G.’s office typically doesn’t do criminal investigations. It’s mostly civil. The fact that this is a criminal investigation tells me that James’ office came up with something so important that it transformed it from a civil case to a criminal case.”

Gershman said the team-up would also likely send a strong signal to potential witnesses.

“This suggest that the train’s about to leave the station and you better cooperate or you’re going to be in trouble,” Gershman said.

Gillers said he thought Vance might have sought the attorney general’s assistance in part because he is not running for re-election. Involving another team lessens the chance that the next district attorney might change direction on the case.

“So Vance gets continuity and James gets a co-equal seat at what could be the most headlined criminal trial of the century,” said Gillers. “Trump gets heartburn.”