New York - A positive COVID-19 diagnosis for a key witness disrupted the criminal tax fraud trial of two of former President Donald Trump's companies on Tuesday, the second day of the closely-watched case.
Trump Organization Controller Jeffrey McConney, 67, who coughed frequently and gulped water throughout his testimony as a prosecution witness since mid-day Monday, tested positive for the coronavirus after he reported feeling ill.
Assistant District Attorney Joshua Steinglass made the announcement to the court, and Acting Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan immediately launched plans to deal with the disruption.
He ordered that the trial be delayed until Monday, basing the decision on the latest protocols of the New York State Office of Court Administration. The rules say someone who tests positive should isolate for six days before returning to court, providing they feel better, said Merchan.
The projected timetable could enable the trial to resume on Monday, unless McConney remains ill and others who were in the courtroom during his testimony test positive.
"I think that's the sound medical thing to do," said Michael van der Veen, a defense lawyer for one of the Trump firms.
All of the attorneys for the defense and prosecution agreed. Merchan said he considered himself to have been exposed to the coronavirus, because his courtroom bench is just a few feet away from the witness chair where McConney testified.
The judge brought the jurors back from their lunch break, and, without identifying McConney, announced that someone who had been in the well of the courtroom, near them, had tested positive for COVID-19.
Merchan then announced the trial delay, and told jurors the protocols did not require them to get their own tests. However, he asked the jurors to notify the court if they get tested and test positive.
The trial's regular schedule called for the proceeding to be in recess all day Wednesday and on Friday afternoon, even before the disruption caused by McConney's positive test.
Prosecutors allege that the Trump Corporation and the Trump Payroll Corporation were part of a 15-year-long scheme in which the firms secretly gave pre-tax payments to top company executives for personal costs. The scheme enabled the executives to avoid paying taxes on the money, while helping the companies avoid salary increases for at least one top executive.
That executive is Allen Weisselberg, a longtime Trump financial lieutenant and former chief financial officer of the former president's company. He pleaded guilty in August to charges of receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars through the companies for a luxury Manhattan rental, high-end cars, private school tuition payments for his grandchildren and other costs.
The agreement requires Weisselberg to pay nearly $2 million in taxes, penalties and interest, as well testify as for the government at the trial. In exchange, he is expected to receive a jail sentence of roughly 100 days, far lower than he would have gotten without the plea agreement.
Trump is not charged in the case, and is not expected to appear during the trial. The companies pleaded not guilty, and opted to stand trial.
During opening arguments on Monday, prosecutors argued that the Trump firms actively conspired with Weisselberg in an alleged scheme that benefitted both the companies and the executive. Defense lawyers, however, argued that Weisselberg acted alone, for his own financial benefit.
McConney, who began his employment with the Trump Organization in 1987, spent many years working directly under Weisselberg. Prosecutors gave him immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony.
During direct examination by Steinglass, McConney has answered questions about the many Trump company payments to Weisselberg. Again and again, he readily agreed that no taxes had been declared on payments for the perks.
The untaxed payments even included cash to fund Christmas season tips for the doormen in the building where Weisselberg and his wife lived, McConney testified.
Noting that McConney is also a tax preparer, Steinglass asked him "is there any conceivable way that giving an employee cash would not be taxable?"
"No sir," replied McConney.
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►Trump CFO makes a deal: Allen Weisselberg, Trump Organization CFO, pleads guilty in tax case.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Delay in Trump companies trial after witness tests positive for COVID.