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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 3:00 PM
Updated: Aug 6, 2018 3:00 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!"

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 161516

Reported Deaths: 3916
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto10708104
Hinds10519205
Harrison7555113
Jackson6708128
Rankin6130112
Lee547697
Madison5202110
Forrest400187
Jones382189
Lauderdale3727147
Lafayette344057
Washington3367108
Lamar307550
Lowndes261167
Oktibbeha259962
Bolivar250185
Panola240253
Neshoba2311122
Marshall227151
Leflore213991
Monroe212278
Pontotoc211231
Lincoln200867
Sunflower195555
Warren184958
Tate184051
Union176826
Copiah172540
Pike168360
Pearl River163870
Yazoo162940
Scott162730
Itawamba162637
Alcorn160428
Coahoma157844
Prentiss156732
Simpson155153
Adams148352
Grenada147145
Leake143344
Holmes135761
Covington135541
Tippah132530
George131725
Winston131726
Hancock130942
Wayne124924
Attala124735
Marion124248
Tishomingo114844
Chickasaw112132
Newton112129
Tallahatchie100727
Clay97127
Clarke95653
Jasper88523
Stone83115
Calhoun81513
Walthall79930
Montgomery78826
Carroll76315
Smith75716
Lawrence75214
Yalobusha74428
Noxubee74217
Perry69326
Tunica63519
Greene63022
Jefferson Davis60217
Amite59315
Claiborne59316
Humphreys55719
Quitman5117
Benton50518
Kemper49318
Webster47914
Wilkinson41322
Jefferson38712
Franklin3726
Choctaw3697
Sharkey33117
Issaquena1234
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 260359

Reported Deaths: 3776
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson34716513
Mobile20452370
Madison14215153
Tuscaloosa13755173
Montgomery12731243
Shelby1110278
Baldwin9341137
Lee801566
Morgan722855
Etowah692170
Calhoun6809121
Marshall675058
Houston552739
DeKalb512940
Cullman480246
St. Clair460357
Limestone455046
Lauderdale443357
Elmore432567
Walker3861112
Talladega381157
Jackson361623
Colbert341546
Blount315845
Autauga289342
Franklin262634
Coffee257717
Dale244454
Dallas234932
Chilton233641
Covington232434
Russell23153
Escambia206932
Tallapoosa190291
Chambers187551
Clarke164120
Pike163814
Marion148236
Winston144725
Lawrence137336
Pickens129720
Geneva12818
Marengo126724
Bibb125238
Barbour121429
Butler120042
Randolph107022
Cherokee106724
Hale101432
Fayette99916
Clay94825
Washington93921
Henry8996
Monroe84611
Lowndes82629
Cleburne80714
Macon77122
Crenshaw73330
Conecuh72914
Lamar7258
Bullock70919
Perry6987
Wilcox65518
Sumter59522
Greene44518
Choctaw43519
Coosa3824
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