By Shayna Jacobs,
NEW YORK — An associate of Rudolph W. Giuliani who hobnobbed at events attended by then-President Donald Trump illegally funneled foreign funds from a Russian investor to American political candidates to try to win their loyalty and earn favors, prosecutors argued at the start of his trial on Wednesday.
Lev Parnas and another man, Andrey Kukushkin, allegedly conspired to transfer $1 million from financier Andrey Muraviev to donate to candidates who could potentially assist in getting licenses to run legal recreational cannabis businesses. Muraviev has not been charged.
“This is what secret foreign money infiltrating American elections looks like,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Aline Flodr said in her opening statement in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.
Flodr argued that Parnas and Kukushkin were well aware of U.S. election laws that prohibited straw donations from foreign sources. She told jurors that text message and email evidence will prove the pair purposely sought to hide the true source of the donations and “blatantly” violated the law.
Parnas also faces charges that he concealed the source of a $325,000 donation in March 2018 to America First Action, a pro-Trump super PAC.
He and his business partner Igor Fruman, who previously pleaded guilty to soliciting foreign campaign contributions, allegedly told the PAC that the funds were from their start-up business, Global Energy Producers. But the company was a sham and generated no revenue, the U.S. attorney’s office said.
Parnas also allegedly lied to the Federal Election Commission about the hefty contribution to the Republican fundraising committee, which prosecutors say amounted to another straw donation. “[GEP] didn’t exist in the way a real business does,” Flodr said.
Large donations that were not really his own, prosecutors allege, bought Parnas access to events with political heavyweights — including a Mar-a-Lago fundraiser attended by Trump around the 2018 midterm elections.
Parnas and Fruman were arrested in dramatic fashion in October 2019 at Virginia’s Dulles International Airport, where they had one-way tickets to Frankfurt, Germany. Their association with Giuliani, who is not charged in the case, and their role in assisting his efforts in trying to dig up dirt on President Biden and his son Hunter prior to the 2020 election, played heavily in Trump’s first impeachment trial.
Parnas’s attorney, Joseph Bondy, told the jury his client was legitimately interested in trying to get support for business ventures he was involved in. At one event he attended with Trump, he gave the president a memo explaining why the federal government should legalize marijuana, Bondy said.
“He didn’t knowingly . . . violate federal election laws,” Bondy argued, adding that “sinister inferences of criminality” will be absent from the evidence.
Kukushkin’s lawyer, Gerald Lefcourt, painted his client as someone who was totally uninterested in politics and could not have been involved in trying to skirt U.S. election laws. “He’s never voted in his life. . . . He’s had nothing to do with contributions,” Lefcourt said.
The first witness, Wesley Karl Duncan, ran for attorney general in 2018 in Nevada, where Parnas and Kukushkin allegedly hoped to help launch a marijuana business. Duncan met Parnas during fundraising efforts by his campaign and testified that all donors had to confirm that they were U.S. citizens citizens before submitting funding.
Duncan said Fruman, in coordination with Parnas, donated $10,000 to his campaign, the maximum amount allowed. When Duncan’s campaign staffers found out the source of the money was questionable, they took action, he said.
“As soon as we had doubt about who sent the money, I contacted the treasurer to the campaign and had them write a check to Mr. Fruman and sent it back to them,” he said.
Parnas and Kukushkin were born in Ukraine and are naturalized U.S. citizens.