The State of New York has sued the Trump Organization and Trump family members individually as part of investigation into several questionable financial dealings. Oversimplified, the suit suggests that the defendants carried at least two sets of financial books. One set of books purportedly inflated property values for purposes of obtaining financing. Another one deflated values for tax purposes.
This is a civil suit that seeks financial damages, unlike a criminal suit that might result in jail time.
New York issued subpoenas to Trump family members to testify under oath in a deposition. Today’s hearing was to hear Trumps’ objections to these subpoenas. The court denied Trumps’ objections and ordered the family members to appear for depositions within a few weeks’ time. The order will certainly be appealed.
One may ask why this is such a big deal. After all, Eric Trump has had his deposition taken previously in this case and “pleaded the fifth” more than 500 times.
As anyone who has taken a Government class will recall, you are never forced to testify against yourself. You are completely protected from incriminating yourself. The effect of refusing to testify (or answer questions), however, is markedly different in criminal and civil cases.
In a criminal case, the refusal to testify may not be used against you. Thus, a jury must disregard your willingness or unwillingness to testify in determining your guilt or innocence.
In a civil case, you retain the right to refuse to answer questions or testify. However, the jury make take that into account in deciding the case. In other words, a jury could infer bad intent if the Trumps were to refuse to answer questions.
Donald Trump has repeatedly said publicly that people who “take the fifth” or refuse to testify are likely guilty of charges against them. The State of New York will undoubtedly introduce those statements into evidence at the eventual civil trial if testimony is refused.
That is why it was so important for the Trumps to win on the subpoena motion. Having lost, they are now facing a true quandary. Do they testify and subject themselves to explaining financial discrepancies (and possible perjury) or do they remain silent and accept the consequences of that inference?
The answer to that question has taken on even greater weight this week when their accounting firm stated in a letter that financial statements over the last ten years are unreliable. In the same letter, the Trump Organization was fired as a client due to a “conflict of interest.”
In this context, “conflict of interest” means that the accounting firm believes that their interests and that of the Trump Organization are in conflict. The Trump Organization was, to use a common phrase, thrown under the bus.