New Jersey-based Alina Habba reportedly got to know her No. 1 client, former President Donald Trump, after becoming a member of his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey. And since that fateful meeting, she has represented Trump in a variety of lawsuits, ranging from the E. Jean Carroll cases to his now-dismissed racketeering case against the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton. And it was in the latest Carroll trial where Habba’s brash advocacy on Trump’s behalf was fully on display; her frequent disregard for procedural rules and/or prior court orders even brought her to the brink of jail time.
But she has more than one client within Trump world. In the New York attorney general’s civil fraud case against the former president, multiple business entities under the Trump Organization umbrella, and others, Habba does not formally represent Trump but does have another significant client: Allen Weisselberg, former chief financial officer of the Trump Organization and convicted felon.
Weisselberg, who worked for the Trump family for nearly a half-century, has long been an intriguing figure — and alleged accomplice to Trump’s own fraud. There’s no question his loyalty to the boss runs deep. After pleading guilty to felony tax fraud in the Manhattan district attorney’s case against him and the Trump Organization in 2022, Weisselberg was forced to testify at trial, but he steadfastly refused to turn on the former president.
And he appears to have been rewarded for his “service.” A day before he was sentenced to five months at New York’s infamous Rikers Island jail, Weisselberg signed a $2 million severance agreement. I’ve previously questioned the legitimacy of that agreement, especially because as a condition of receiving that $2 million in eight installments over nearly two years, Weisselberg may not “communicate with, provide information to, or otherwise cooperate in any way with any other person or entity ... having or claiming to have any adverse claims against the Company” or any of its employees, officers or directors, past and present. Put simply, barring a subpoena or other court-ordered process, Weisselberg can’t help anyone trying to hold Trump accountable, including prosecutors and law enforcement officials.
That brings me back to Habba and the civil fraud trial, in which Judge Arthur Engoron is expected to render a decision on damages soon. Like Trump, Weisselberg is a defendant. And like Trump, Weisselberg was compelled by subpoena to testify in the case. But Weisselberg reportedly has been negotiating a second plea agreement with the Manhattan DA’s office, according to The New York Times, this time for allegedly perjuring himself during his testimony at the civil fraud trial. Engoron, who must judge the credibility of the witnesses while making his ruling, unsurprisingly ordered both sides to disclose what they know about Weisselberg’s supposed willingness to admit lying on the stand. Engoron further directed the parties to provide their views on how the alleged plea negotiations should inform his timing, if at all.
Nothing in the responses suggests that Engoron should delay his decision, but that’s where they diverge.
While maintaining that its trial team members have had no involvement in any plea negotiations, and that they don’t know which specific testimony would be covered by such talks or whether Weisselberg has, in fact, admitted to falsely testifying, the attorney general’s team argues that under Rule 3.3 of New York’s Rules of Professional Conduct, any defense lawyer who does know anything that would establish that Weisselberg committed perjury has decidedly different responsibilities. Such counsel, the AG’s team contends, is “obligated to disclose those facts, even if privileged and even if it exposes Mr. Weisselberg to prosecution for perjury.”
We do not represent him [Weisselberg] in connection with any criminal matters. I have not spoken with the New York District Attorney’s Office (DANY) about any of the matters discussed in the New York Times article. Further, in an abundance of caution, I have conferred with my ethics counsel and have been advised that I am constrained by my professional ethical obligations from providing any further detail.
Notably, she does not deny conferring with Weisselberg and/or his criminal defense counsel about the plea negotiations. She also does not deny that some portion of his testimony was knowingly false. Rather, despite the plain language of Rule 3.3 regarding a lawyer’s obligations, she seems to be telling Engoron that her ethical obligations to her client preclude her from saying more. Or is it more complicated? Could Habba be saying that because Weisselberg’s interests now diverge from those of other clients, notably Trump’s, she is truly in a pickle?
For now, it’s not clear what ethical obligations she’s referring to. After all, Engoron — in an emailed response to counsel Thursday — reaffirmed Habba’s duties under Rule 3.3. And he ended with a stern warning: “[I]f someone pleads guilty to committing perjury in a case over which I am presiding, I want to know about it.”
But while l’affaire Weisselberg ultimately may not prevent Engoron from ruling soon, the episode — and not her actual courtroom antics — could be what causes the greatest harm yet to Alina Habba’s standing as a lawyer. Watch this space.