(Bloomberg) -- Tom Barrack was a globe-trotting businessman who ran a $40 billion investment fund and allegations that he was an illegal foreign agent of the United Arab Emirates are “nonsense,” his lawyer told jurors at the start of his criminal trial.
Defense lawyer Michael Schachter on Wednesday mocked claims by prosecutors that Barrack acted at the “direction and control” of the Gulf Nation in a secret effort from 2016 to 2018 to influence Donald Trump’s campaign and administration, while also trying to manipulate American opinion on its behalf.
“The idea that Tom Barrack was controlled by anyone is nonsense,” Schachter told jurors in federal court in Brooklyn, New York, where the trial is expected to last five weeks. “Tom Barrack was his own man.”
Prosecutor Hiral Mehta asserted that Barrack, the 75-year-old founder of Colony Capital LLC, and his former assistant, Matthew Grimes, were the “eyes and ears and voices” of the UAE as they provided the Persian Gulf country with sensitive information and access to the highest highest levels of US government.
While Barrack and Grimes, 29, took those actions, Colony secured “millions and millions of dollars” in UAE investments, Mehta said during his opening arguments Wednesday.
“When Donald Trump ran for president, the defendants saw an opportunity -- an opportunity for Barrack to use his unique access to Donald Trump to gain power and money for themselves,” Mehta said.
Barrack is also accused of obstruction of justice and lying to federal authorities during a five-hour interview in 2019 about his activities in the UAE.
Mehta said Barrack and Grimes conspired with an Emirati businessman, Rashid Al Malik Alshahhi, to carry out orders from top UAE leaders. Al Malik was indicted with Barrack and Grimes but left the US after an interview by US agents several years ago.
Court filings have spelled out two investments by UAE sovereign wealth funds in Barrack-related projects. Mubadala Investment Co. invested $74 million in a Los Angeles office tower, and the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority put $300 million into a digital infrastructure fund.
Prosecutors have said the case involves Barrack’s connections to Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, known as MBZ, and his brother, Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE’s national security adviser.
In his opening, Schachter said Barrack was “one of the most successful businessmen in the entire world.” Barrack, he said, traveled the world looking for investors, and met with Sheikh Tahnoun to discuss a potential investment in Colony.
Schachter recounted Barrack’s second meeting with Sheikh Tahnoun, who asked him to bike up a mountain in 110-degree heat, accompanied by 30 pro cyclists and a doctor.
Barrack “pulled on his biking shorts and hauled himself up a mountain in searing desert heat,” Schachter said. “This was a meeting where Tom tried to get Sheikh Tahnoun to invest. What didn’t they agree to talk about? Tom agreeing to be controlled by a foreign country.”
The defense lawyer for Grimes, Abbe Lowell, used his opening statement to depict his client as a devoted personal assistant to Barrack who worked as an analyst and vice president, generating reports and setting up meetings. But Lowell said Grimes was also a “gofer” who fetched coffee, toted luggage, bought gifts, took photos and babysat for his boss.
Lowell showed jurors a variety of photos of Grimes at various ages, including when he worked as a DJ at 14 at a birthday party for one Barrack’s six children. Grimes got hired as an intern at Colony at 18, the same year Fortune ran a cover photo of Barrack with the headline: “The World’s Greatest Real Estate Investor.”
After graduating from University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in three years, Grimes began full-time work at Colony, his attorney said. “Matthew was smart and eager to succeed and progress at the company and even start his own investment firm,” Lowell said.
Grimes connected Barrack with key people in the case but didn’t participate in meetings cited by prosecutors, Lowell said.
“It made him an agent of that man, working for that company and working for nobody in the UAE,” Lowell said. “He was not a player or an agent,” the lawyer said. “He was a 22-year-old assistant doing his job.”
After the lunch break, US District Judge Brian Cogan dismissed a juror who appeared to be sleeping. Cogan said the juror told his clerk in a “hostile tone” she didn’t want to serve on the jury.
Prosecutors also called their first witness, Christopher Davidson, an expert on Persian Gulf states who began to give jurors an overview of the UAE and Saudi Arabia. His testimony will resume on Thursday.
The case is US v. Al Malik Alshahhi, 21-cr-00371, US District Court, Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn).
(Updates with Grimes defense arguments)
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