News Brief: Trump Probe, Florida Building Collapse, Cosby Out Of Prison
NOEL KING, HOST:
The Manhattan DA's office has been investigating The Trump Organization for three years now.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And we may have reached the culmination of that investigation at this point. This afternoon in New York, the former president's family business and one of its leading executives are expected to be charged with financial crimes.
KING: Reporter Ilya Marritz is following this story. Good morning, Ilya.
ILYA MARRITZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.
KING: So a former president has never been charged with breaking the law, but if there is an indictment today, even though it's his business, it would come close, wouldn't it?
MARRITZ: Yeah. Trump the man and Trump the business are literally synonymous. And Donald Trump cares so much about his business, he was unwilling to divest from it or put it in a blind trust after he was elected president. Now, Trump and his business have been in court thousands of times over the years. They have sued people, and they've been sued. You might remember the Trump University case in which Trump was accused of operating a sham university - he settled that one - or the Trump Foundation case where he was accused of running a fake charity to benefit himself. He settled that one, too. Every one of these court cases has always been civil, not criminal. That's what makes this arraignment we're expecting this afternoon so noteworthy. For the first time, it's the Trump business that is being criminally charged. Criminal cases, of course, come with higher potential penalties and possible serious reputational damage.
KING: And after a three-year investigation, what charges do you think The Trump Organization is likely to face?
MARRITZ: So these are the crimes that Vance has said he was looking into - they're state crimes - scheme to defraud, falsification of business records, insurance fraud and criminal tax fraud. We don't know whether these crimes or others will ultimately be charged today because the criminal complaint isn't yet public. We do know that in recent months, prosecutors have been looking closely at whether or not taxes were paid on non-salaried forms of compensation for Trump Organization employees. It's pretty common for companies to sometimes pay their employees with little extras. But at The Trump Organization, it went beyond that. And we know this because CFO Allen Weisselberg's son, Barry, also works for Trump. And a few years ago, when Barry Weisselberg got divorced, his assets and income were part of that proceeding. Jennifer Weisselberg's attorney, Duncan Levin, told us Trump Org paid way more than mere perks.
DUNCAN LEVIN: These are multimillion-dollar apartments and tuitions to the most expensive private schools in the world, renovations of marble and other, you know, high-end appliances. And the core of this is serious.
MARRITZ: So the question now is whether taxes were paid on those perks. And if prosecutors allege they were not, can they prove it?
KING: OK. You mentioned that prosecutors were also looking into other crimes beyond just tax fraud. So let's say only tax fraud is alleged. Does that mean that's the end of it, that's what we're looking at here?
MARRITZ: That would be surprising. This has been a three-year investigation. Donald Trump took the Manhattan DA, Cyrus Vance, all the way to the Supreme Court twice in an effort to block him from getting his financial records like tax returns. And we know that early on, Vance was examining hush money payments made to two women who claimed they had affairs with Trump. Michael Cohen, Trump's personal lawyer, went to jail over that. Trump was never charged. And he's also looked at a bunch of other real estate matters. So I will be watching very closely to see, A, what crimes are charged today and, B, whether the indictment tells a story about business practices at The Trump Organization. And if it tells a story about how Trump does business, it may also suggest to us additional charges that could be filed down the line.
KING: What are you expecting from the arraignment?
MARRITZ: Well, Allen Weisselberg will appear in court for his arraignment and someone will appear on behalf of The Trump Organization as well. We have asked Trump's and Weisselberg's lawyers for comment. They didn't offer any. But Donald Trump has always maintained his innocence. And he said this investigation is politically motivated.
KING: Ilya Marritz. Thanks for your reporting, Ilya. We appreciate it.
MARRITZ: You're welcome.
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KING: All right. We are learning new information about concerns had by Surfside town officials and by the condo board association of the Champlain Tower South Building.
MARTIN: Months before the tower collapsed, it had been under review by the condo board for needed repairs, but there seemed to be no urgency to get any major work completed. Now 18 people are confirmed dead, 145 others are missing.
KING: NPR's Brian Mann is part of our reporting team that's examining a bunch of documents from the town and the condo association board. Good morning, Brian.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: You've gotten some really interesting access with these documents. What have you learned?
MANN: Yeah. So this is remarkable. This building that collapsed, Champlain Tower South, was closely scrutinized, inspected and monitored by government officials in the months before it collapsed. And building inspectors, as you mentioned, they never demanded major repairs. In fact, what the documents obtained by NPR show is there was little urgency, even as these warnings about the condo's safety and its foundations continued to grow. We know that building began to get attention as early as 2018 from officials in Surfside. That's when they were given that troubling engineering report that showed real structural concerns. And after that, town officials continued to interact with the building and its managers frequently. There's a requirement, actually, in the county that tall buildings older than 40 years undergo a review to ensure that they're safe. The documents we've obtained showed that review did find serious problems. It sort of almost worked. But we found that there was very little follow through.
KING: Why? There were people living there.
MANN: Yeah, this is a real mystery at this point. Town officials have declined to answer questions about their process, saying now is not the right time while the search is still underway. They have pledged transparency, though. What we do know, though, is that the town kept ordering managers of the condo to do simple and relatively minor things, like repairing gates and replacing paving stone. What's missing here is any sense of urgency about the building's bigger problems, those concrete and steel foundations that were decaying. We obtained pictures yesterday of some of those problems taken just in the last year or two showing crumbling concrete support structures and rusting beams. These are all things that structural engineers were concerned about.
KING: And so what was the condo association board doing about this during this time?
MANN: Yeah, its members were well aware of problems beginning again in 2018 when that structural report was produced for them. But in the weeks after it finished, the top building inspector for the town of Surfside attended a condo board meeting and told residents the building was in, quote, "good shape." Despite that assurance, we've acquired other documents that show growing fear among some of the condo association's board. But there was also turmoil. We found five people on the seven-member board quit in 2019, and that seems to have delayed this work and really shut things down.
KING: OK, a lot to still be figured out. Brian Mann, thanks so much for your reporting.
MANN: Thank you.
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KING: After almost three years in prison, Bill Cosby is a free man.
MARTIN: Yesterday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court vacated the 2018 sexual assault conviction against Cosby. He was found guilty of drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand back in 2004. The court said prosecutors violated Cosby's rights and the terms of what's called a non-prosecution agreement. No other criminal charges have been brought against him, but dozens of women have accused the comedian and actor of misconduct, including Victoria Valentino. She says Cosby drugged and raped her in 1969.
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VICTORIA VALENTINO: His rights were violated? What about ours? What about our rights to live and breathe and trust?
KING: NPR's Elizabeth Blair has been following this story. Good morning, Elizabeth.
ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.
KING: What has been the reaction from the many other women who say Cosby assaulted them?
BLAIR: Stunned and disappointed. To a lot of them, it's hard to understand how after all of these women have come forward, after a jury found Cosby guilty, that he could still be released on a legal technicality. They're also concerned about what the news will do to victims of sexual assault. I spoke with Angela Rose, who is the head of a nonprofit called PAVE, which stands for Promoting Awareness Victim Empowerment. Here's what she said.
ANGELA ROSE: I fear that this is going to really hinder other survivors from coming forward. And so, you know, this case, the Bill Cosby case, was truly one of the first cases in the hashtag #MeToo movement, and it really paved the way for other survivors of high-profile, influential perpetrators to speak out. So I don't want that to be lost.
BLAIR: Rose was in the courtroom supporting the alleged victims who testified in the Andrea Constand trial. She says the news of Cosby's release is like a knife in the heart to them.
KING: There are also people who've come out publicly in support of Cosby, including really interestingly his co-star on "The Cosby Show," Phylicia Rashad, who for many years said very little.
BLAIR: Yes. Phylicia Rashad, who played Cosby's wife on TV for many years, was at first very enthusiastic. She tweeted, finally, a terrible wrong is being righted. A miscarriage of justice is corrected. She later backpedaled and sent another tweet saying she supported survivors of sexual assault coming forward and that her earlier post was, quote, "in no way intended to be insensitive to their truth."
KING: Which, I imagine, was a reaction to something that I noticed online yesterday. A lot of people were upset about what she said.
BLAIR: Very much so. Rashad was recently named the dean of the Chadwick Boseman College of Fine Arts at Howard University. So a number of Howard alumni feel the comment was really inappropriate.
KING: I know this is a really hard question to answer, maybe even impossible, but do you think this is a setback for the #MeToo movement?
BLAIR: Some activists are saying yes. Angela Rose, who I spoke with earlier, she said it is, but others, you know, are still fighting the good fight. I mean, maybe the #MeToo movement has lost some steam. But attorney Gloria Allred said yesterday at a press conference that she is moving forward with a civil case against Bill Cosby in Los Angeles County. She is representing a woman who claims Cosby sexually assaulted her when she was 15 years old at the Playboy Mansion. Cosby has denied causing any harm to Allred's client Judy Huth.
KING: NPR's Elizabeth Blair reporting. Thank you, Elizabeth.
BLAIR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.