A New York state judge has ruled that former US President Donald Trump must answer questions under oath in a New York civil investigation into his business practices.
Judge Arthur Engoron on Thursday ordered Trump and his two eldest children, Ivanka and Donald Trump Jr, to comply with subpoenas issued in December by New York Attorney General Letitia James, who is probing Trump’s real estate development group.
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Trump and his two children must sit for a deposition within 21 days, said Engoron, who issued the ruling after a two-hour hearing with lawyers for the Trumps and James’ office.
“In the final analysis, a State Attorney General commences investigating a business entity, uncovers copious evidence of possible financial fraud, and wants to question, under oath, several of the entities’ principals, including its namesake. She has the clear right to do so,” Engoron wrote in his decision.
James’s civil investigation parallels a separate criminal investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office of Trump’s organisation, creating a difficult legal quandary for the former president and his family.
James has said her investigation has revealed evidence Trump’s company used “fraudulent or misleading” valuations of assets like golf resorts and skyscrapers to get loans and tax benefits. But, if Trump testifies in the civil probe, anything he says could be used against him in the criminal investigation, his lawyers said.
Lawyers for the former president did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Alan Futerfas, a lawyer for the younger Trumps, declined to comment.
Earlier this week James disclosed that Trump’s former accounting firm Mazars has disavowed its prior reports on Trump’s finances saying filings from 2011-2020 “should no longer be relied upon”.
Spurred by evidence uncovered in James’ civil investigation, Manhattan prosecutors last year charged the Trump Organization’s finance chief Allen Weisselberg and the company with tax fraud. Weisselberg and the company have pleaded not guilty.
In court on Thursday, Trumps’ lawyers accused James of trying to enforce subpoenas for testimony from Trump and his children with the intent to use what they say against them in the parallel criminal probe.
Trump’s lawyers had told Engoron that having the ex-president sit for a civil deposition now, while his company is also the subject of a parallel criminal investigation, is an improper attempt to get around a state law barring prosecutors from calling someone to testify before a criminal grand jury without giving them immunity.
“If she wants sworn testimony from my client, he’s entitled to immunity. He gets immunity for what he says, or he says nothing,” Trump’s criminal defence lawyer, Ronald Fischetti, said in the hearing, which was conducted by video conference.
“They’re cherry-picking,” Donald Trump’s lawyer Alina Habba told Engoron of the New York state court in Manhattan. “It is an improper run-around of the rules.”
Habba accused James of “selective prosecution and prosecutorial misconduct that this country has never seen,” citing statements reflecting the Democratic attorney general’s “vile disdain” for the former Republican president.
“If he was not who he is, she would not be doing this,” Habba said. “This court can help stop this circus.”
Kevin Wallace, a lawyer from James’ office, rejected that characterisation arguing that having parallel probes “isn’t all that extraordinary”.
“They haven’t shown anything here that says it’s unfair,” Wallace said.
The criminal inquiry into the Trump Organization is now led by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. James joined that probe last May.
In a statement on Tuesday, Trump railed against what he called a “sham investigation of a great company that has done a spectacular job for New York and beyond”. Trump called it a racially motivated “continuation of a Witch Hunt the likes of which has never been seen in this Country before”; Both James and Bragg are Black.
Trump could invoke his Fifth Amendment constitutional right to not incriminate himself in a civil deposition, but if he does so, it could hurt any potential criminal defence in the separate criminal probe, Fischetti said.
Previously, Eric Trump and Weisselberg hundreds of times invoked their right not to speak when they were questioned by investigators in James civil investigation in 2020.
Engoron has previously sided with James on other matters relating to the probe, including forcing Eric Trump testify after his lawyers abruptly cancelled a scheduled deposition.
Engoron’s ruling on Thursday is almost certain to be appealed but if upheld, would force the former president to provide testimony, or claim his right not to incriminate himself.