The Trump Organization, the real estate business that catapulted Donald J. Trump to tabloid fame, television riches and ultimately the White House, was charged Thursday with running a 15-year scheme to help its executives evade taxes by compensating them with fringe benefits that were hidden from the authorities.
The Manhattan district attorney’s office, which has been conducting the investigation alongside the New York attorney general, also accused a top executive, Allen H. Weisselberg, of avoiding taxes on $1.7 million in perks that should have been reported as income. Mr. Weisselberg, Mr. Trump’s long-serving and trusted chief financial officer, faced grand larceny, tax fraud and other charges.
“To put it bluntly, this was a sweeping and audacious illegal payments scheme,” Carey Dunne, general counsel for the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., said during an arraignment in State Supreme Court in Manhattan.
Mr. Dunne and the indictment described a deliberate effort by senior executives to underreport their income, in concert with the Trump Organization, by accepting secret perks that did not show up on tax documents. In the case of Mr. Weisselberg, the indictment said, the company kept his benefits off its books but recorded them in an internal spreadsheet.
The charges against the Trump Organization and Mr. Weisselberg — whom Mr. Trump once praised for doing “whatever was necessary to protect the bottom line” — ushered in a new phase of the district attorney’s inquiry into the business practices of Mr. Trump and his company. And while the indictment was narrowly focused on the tax scheme, the charges could lay the groundwork for the next steps in the wider investigation, which will focus on Mr. Trump.
The indictment took square aim at Mr. Weisselberg after months of increasing pressure on him to offer information that could help that broader inquiry. Prosecutors had subpoenaed Mr. Weisselberg’s personal tax returns and bank records, reviewed a raft of his financial dealings and questioned his ex-daughter-in-law — all part of an effort to gain his cooperation. That effort is expected to continue, and now Mr. Weisselberg is under even greater pressure: He could face more than a decade in prison if he is convicted.
Mr. Trump was not charged, and no other executives were accused by name of wrongdoing.
In a brief interview with The New York Times after the indictment was unsealed, Mr. Trump called the accusations a “continuation of the witch hunt that started when I came down the escalator,” referring to the 2015 event at Trump Tower when he announced his presidential campaign. Asked if he was worried about the pressure being put on Mr. Weisselberg, he said only that his longtime lieutenant was an “honorable man.”
Mr. Weisselberg pleaded not guilty. “He will fight these charges in court,” his lawyers, Mary E. Mulligan and Bryan C. Skarlatos, said in a statement.
Lawyers for the Trump Organization called the case inappropriate and unjustified, saying it should be resolved by civil tax authorities. “In our view, this case was brought because the companies’ name is Trump,” the lawyers, Alan S. Futerfas, Bettina Schein and Susan R. Necheles, said in a statement. “This case signals that it is now open season for local prosecutors to target federal political opponents and adversaries.”
The 15-count indictment — which charged the Trump Organization with committing a scheme to defraud, criminal tax fraud and falsifying business records — also accused the company of avoiding its own obligations by not paying payroll taxes on the benefits.
It charged Mr. Weisselberg with failing to pay taxes on leased Mercedes-Benzes, bonuses and a rent-free apartment paid for by the company. After Mr. Trump personally paid private school tuition for Mr. Weisselberg’s grandchildren, Mr. Weisselberg directed that the notations “per Allen Weisselberg” be removed from the ledger recording the checks. And the indictment charged Mr. Weisselberg with grand larceny for obtaining tax refunds to which it said he was not entitled.
Although Mr. Trump was not accused of a crime, an indictment of the company that carries his name strikes a blow to the former president just as he has resumed holding rallies. Even if Mr. Trump parlays the charges into some immediate good will from his supporters, he could face the costly distraction of a trial if he attempts to mount another presidential campaign.
The charges could also jeopardize his company’s relationship with business partners who had stood by the Trump Organization even after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, which prompted a backlash against the former president.