By David A. Fahrenthold, Josh Dawsey, Shayna Jacobs and Jonathan O’Connell,
Shannon Stapleton Reuters
A longtime accountant for former president Donald Trump — who helped prepare Trump’s taxes and the financial statements his company used to woo lenders — testified recently before a New York grand jury investigating Trump’s financial practices, according to two people familiar with that investigation.
Accountant Donald Bender, of the firm Mazars, appeared before a grand jury that was impaneled this fall by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. (D) to weigh potential criminal charges, the people said.
In addition, in recent weeks prosecutors have interviewed Rosemary Vrablic, a former managing director at Deutsche Bank who arranged hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to Trump, according to people familiar with the investigation. Vrablic’s interview was not before the grand jury. Instead, one person said, prosecutors pressed Vrablic about Trump’s role in dealings with the bank.
The people who described these interviews spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe an ongoing investigation.
The appearances by Bender and Vrablic suggest prosecutors are seeking information about Trump’s finances from a small circle of outside partners who handled details of Trump’s taxes and real estate deals. Bender and Vrablic were never Trump’s employees, but they knew more about his company’s inner workings than many employees did.
Prosecutors are investigating whether Trump’s company broke the law by giving widely different valuations for the same property at the same time. In some cases, for instance, the Trump Organization provided low valuations to property-tax officials, while telling lenders that the same property was worth much more.
Bender’s first appearance before the grand jury was brief, the people said. But they said Bender could return for more testimony in the coming weeks.
His appearance could be significant because Bender handled vast amounts of Trump’s financial information as an outside accountant. Prosecutors already obtained millions of pages of Trump-related documents from Bender’s firm, after a court battle that went to the Supreme Court twice.
Now, they have sought testimony from a man who could serve as a human road map to that data.
This line of inquiry appears separate from the felony charges filed this summer against the Trump Organization’s longtime chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, and two Trump corporate entities.
Those charges focused on allegations of tax evasion in the Trump Organization’s payrolls. Prosecutors said Weisselberg had concealed portions of executives’ pay — including his own — from the IRS. Weisselberg and the two companies have pleaded not guilty.
Trump himself has not been accused of any crime.
Spokespeople for Vance and New York Attorney General Letitia James (D), who is collaborating with Vance on the criminal probe, declined to comment. So did attorneys for Bender and Trump, and spokespeople for Mazars and Deutsche Bank.
There are two separate, long-running investigations of Trump’s financial practices in New York state.
One is led by James, the attorney general, and it is civil in nature — meaning it could end in a lawsuit. In that investigation, James has already interviewed top Trump Organization employees, including Weisselberg and Trump’s son Eric, according to court documents. She is now seeking to take a deposition of Trump himself in early January.
The other investigation is led by Vance, in collaboration with James. It is criminal in nature, meaning it could end in misdemeanor or felony charges. That investigation is about to have a new leader: Vance is leaving office at the end of the month, to be replaced by newly elected Alvin Bragg (D).
If Vance or Bragg ever seek to file charges against Trump himself, they will face a high burden of proof. They would need to do more than simply prove the Trump Organization’s numbers were wrong.
They would need to show why they were wrong — to prove Trump intended to deceive.
That proof is unlikely to come from an email. Trump has never used email, either as a businessman or as a politician, employees have said. Instead, legal experts said, any evidence of Trump’s intent would have to come from someone close to him, who could report what he said about his finances, and why.
That is a small circle. Weisselberg was in it. But so far, there has been no indication that he has cooperated with the district attorney’s investigation. Weisselberg’s lawyer declined to comment Tuesday.
Now, prosecutors appear to have expanded their focus to a small set of outside advisers who were not Trump employees, but still handled details of Trump’s finances.
Last year, for instance, James’s investigators interviewed Sheri Dillon, an outside attorney who worked with Trump on tax and real estate issues, according to court filings.
Vrablic, meanwhile, dealt with many of Trump’s largest business loans. Vrablic left Deutsche Bank last December, according to regulatory filings. Vrablic said at the time that the departure was her decision.
When Vrablic met with Vance’s staff, one of the people said, prosecutors asked Vrablic about Trump’s personal role in dealing with the bank. An attorney for Vrablic declined to comment.
For Bender, Trump’s longtime accountant, even his brief appearance before the grand jury had legal significance. Under New York law, witnesses before a grand jury are automatically granted immunity from prosecution — meaning that Bender could not be charged for his work for Trump.
Bender has provided a wide array of accounting services to Trump for decades. At his firm, Bender led a “select group of tax experts” who managed Trump’s affairs, wrote former Mazars accountant Henry Kogan in 2017 in an essay on a literary website.
“Donald’s entire professional existence revolved around one client, that client’s organization, and the hundreds of entities represented inside an IRS form,” Kogan wrote.
Bender personally signed the tax forms for Trump’s charitable foundation until it shut down in 2018,
following a lawsuit by the New York attorney general that said the charity engaged in “persistently illegal conduct.” Trump was ordered to pay $2 million in damages. Neither Bender nor the firm were accused of any wrongdoing.
Beginning in at least 2003, Bender’s firm has also compiled Trump’s “statements of personal financial condition” that the future president circulated among journalists and others to brag about his finances.
The documents listed Trump’s business assets but frequently contained inflated figures, such as claiming more home lots or acres or office floors than his properties actually had, while omitting some liabilities, such as bank debts, according to copies of the documents.
Bender was questioned in court proceedings about those statements as part of Trump’s suit against journalist Timothy O’Brien. Asked by a defense attorney whether Trump’s 2003 statements were “subjective” or not, Bender said that the accountants did not audit these numbers — they took Trump’s assertions about the values of his properties and wrote them up, without checking to see if they matched reality.
“Do you believe that different people could reach different conclusions about the valuation of the same property?” an attorney for O’Brien asked.
“I don’t — it’s not my area — I’m not an appraiser. It’s not my job,” Bender said