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The bonfire of Paul Manafort's vanities

"I'm already going broke on a million dollars a year! The appalling figures came popping up into his bra...

Posted: Aug 6, 2018 1:00 PM
Updated: Aug 6, 2018 1:00 PM

"I'm already going broke on a million dollars a year! The appalling figures came popping up into his brain." -- Tom Wolfe, "The Bonfire of the Vanities" (1987)

The spirit of Sherman McCoy, the protagonist of the late Tom Wolfe's best-seller "The Bonfire of the Vanities," hovers over the trial of Paul Manafort like a ghost of extravagance and greed. The evidence introduced in the early days of Manafort's trial paints a portrait of a present-day McCoy, trapped in a federal courtroom, on trial on tax, bank fraud and money laundering charges that could put him in prison for 30 years.

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New York lawyers love Wolfe's book since it is a reasonably accurate portrayal of New York's chaotic, colorful and Dickensian criminal justice system in the 1980s. The seemingly wealthy McCoy, a bond trader, and his expensive mistress take a wrong turn into the crime-ridden South Bronx, where they accidentally kill a young man with McCoy's Mercedes.

Soon McCoy is sucked into and ground up by a criminal justice system he had previously experienced only in the pages of New York's then-vibrant tabloids.

Manafort's "South Bronx" is the world of foreign tyrants and dictators and the political consultants who help them to perpetuate their regimes of misery. Like McCoy's junk bonds, the money is good until your luck runs out or the law (in Manafort's case, Robert Mueller) finally catches up with you.

On the third day of his trial, Manafort, President Donald Trump's former campaign manager, listened attentively as his former bookkeeper, Heather Washkuhn, confirmed that he had always kept a close eye on the inner workings of his firm -- including income and expenditures. Her testimony undermined Manafort's defense that Rick Gates, his turncoat partner, was the bad guy hiding financial irregularities.

She at first depicted Manafort's rise to riches, but Washkuhn ended her testimony with grim details of his financial collapse and desperate efforts to borrow from banks to stay afloat. By the end of day three, prosecutors were already turning to the bank-fraud counts in a fast-moving trial that may end even sooner than the three weeks originally estimated.

Wolfe based McCoy's fictional trial judge on the real-life Justice Burton Roberts, described in his New York Times obituary as "voluble and blunt, with a fiery temper and a rumbling voice that brooked no nonsense." He was remembered for "relentlessly chastising overzealous prosecutors and defense lawyers, and even chiding witnesses he deemed out of line."

Manafort's trial judge, the crusty and irascible T.S. Ellis, has pushed the trial ahead at breakneck speed, an honored local custom in the Northern Virginia federal district known as the "rocket docket." He has criticized both prosecutors and defense attorneys for describing some of Manafort's Eastern European and Russian clients as "oligarchs." He said the word carries unfair and unproven criminal connotations suggesting that Manafort was "associated with despicable people."

Prosecutors allege that these clients paid his consulting firm an estimated $90 million in fees, often wired into offshore accounts to deceive American tax authorities. The accounts, prosecutors say, were used to avoid US taxes and to fund Manafort's lavish lifestyle.

But what Ellis gives with one hand he takes away with the other. Though he warned prosecutors, "We don't convict people because they have a lot of money to throw around," the judge had already permitted the now chastened prosecutors to introduce into evidence a cornucopia of lavish and seemingly reckless Manafort spending sprees.

The WASPy Sherman McCoy had a $3 million Park Avenue co-op, but -- as jurors discovered this week in Alexandria -- he couldn't hold a candle to Manafort. Before he worked for Trump, Manafort spent $3.3 million renovating such properties as his Trump Tower condo, a Brooklyn townhouse and a vacation home in Bridgehampton on Long Island. He bought a $1.9 million home in Arlington, Virginia, for his daughter Andrea that included a $104,000 "concept garden."

Though sternly refusing to allow prosecutors to show photos of Manafort's extravagant clothes-filled closets, Ellis permitted the jurors to hear that Manafort's wardrobe included a $15,000 ostrich leather jacket, a $21,000 watch, $900,000 worth of clothing from Alan Couture, a men's clothing boutique not recognized by the judge because it didn't have Men's Wearhouse in the title (a joke that prosecutors would love). The luxury list went on and on.

Prosecutors have described the tax case against Manafort as a "lifestyle" case. It is proven in part by adding up the cost of items Manafort purchased over a set time period to demonstrate that sufficient income was not reported to the Internal Revenue Service before or during that time frame to cover the cost of the items. Manafort's gift to the prosecutors was the staggeringly extravagant nature of his purchases. Did his wife really need a $9,500 ostrich vest and an $18,000 python jacket? With her husband walking around in his own ostrich coat, apparently either he or she thought so.

So far Manafort's prospects for a favorable verdict look grim, though it is early in the trial and the pendulum may swing as new witnesses take the stand. Like Sherman McCoy, though, Manafort may be holding a final winning hand. The prospect of a presidential pardon may save him from jail, though the charges and the trial itself, regardless of verdict, have undoubtedly destroyed what was left of his fortune and his reputation.

Manafort might reflect on the wisdom of Sherman McCoy if he finds a way to escape jail and rise from the ashes of his financial ruin. "The Bonfire of the Vanities" is remembered not just for its piercing analysis of the greed and hypocrisy of the '80s, but also for that reflection from Sherman on how easy it is to lose everything. "I'm already going broke on a million dollars a year!"

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