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Feds rest case against Giuliani cronies in campaign donor trial

Attorneys for Lev Parnas, the Ukrainian-born businessman accused of facilitating illegal foreign contributions to American electoral campaigns, could not confirm on Tuesday whether or not he will take the witness stand in his own defense.

MANHATTAN (CN) — Federal prosecutors rested their case on Tuesday against Giuliani-linked business associate Lev Parnas in the campaign finance trial of the Florida businessman who once promoted himself as a whistleblower who could expose corruption in the Trump Administration over its dealings in Ukraine.

The trial began in the Southern District of New York last Wednesday; in the five days of testimony since, the Department of Justice conveyed to jurors a scheme by Parnas and his co-conspirators to funnel illegal contributions into American electoral campaigns in exchange for access to political capital they’d hoped to cash in for lucrative licenses in the legal cannabis industry.

Represented by Manhattan-based attorney Todd Blanche, who previously won the dismissal of criminal charges against former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort, Fruman pleaded guilty ahead of the trial and is awaiting sentencing.

The long-delayed trial is moving along faster than the two-week duration anticipated by Obama-appointed U.S. District Judge J. Paul Oetken.

The government’s six-count superseding indictment accuses Parnas, 49, and co-defendant Andrey Kukushikin, 48, of funneling $1 million from wealthy Russian businessman Andrey Muraviev, in two $500,000 political contributions as part of an effort to expand his legal marijuana businesses in the United States. Just $100,000 of “Big Andrey’s” million dollars ultimately made its way into U.S. elections, prosecutors said during opening arguments last Wednesday.

“That is what secret foreign money infiltrating U.S. elections looks like,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Aline Flodr said during the government’s opening arguments in an in-personal trial at the Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse in lower Manhattan.

Prosecutors argued that Parnas and co-conspirator Igor Fruman used the shell company Global Energy Producers to funnel foreign funds into U.S. political campaign donations, including a $325,000 contribution in 2018 to America First Action, the largest pro-Trump super PAC.

Parnas and Kukushkin are charged with counts of conspiracy to make contributions by a foreign national; solicitation of a contribution by a foreign national; making a contribution by a foreign national; conspiracy to make contributions in the name of another; false statements to the federal election commission; and falsification of records.

Last week, prosecutors called on former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who testified to having badgered Parnas on a daily basis for last-minute campaign donations in 2018, even though he had considered Parnas to be a novice “clownish guy with a gold chain” and “a Brooklyn guy with a Florida home.”

Laxalt testified that while an enthusiastic Parnas has offered to do fundraising for his 2018 gubernatorial race when they were first introduced by Giuliani at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, he only managed to bring in a $10,000 online donation made under Fruman’s name. On the advice of his campaign’s counsel, the donation was ultimately returned, Laxalt said at trial.

Caroline Boothe, a former aide to Representative Pete Sessions, testified on Monday that the Texas Republican’s campaign in 2018 received a pair of $2,700 contributions from both Parnas and Fruman, which was later donated to charity after the pair were arrested in Oct. 2019.

Parnas’ defense attorney Joseph Bondy, who serves on the Board of Directors for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), repeatedly pointed out on cross-examination that many of the Republican and Trump-affiliated politicos that Parnas sought access to were themselves staunchly opposed to the legalization of cannabis.

Bondy repeatedly pressed campaign officials who took the stand to state that election finance rules are complicated and that mistake donations are often returned.

Kukushkin’s attorney, Gerald Lefcourt, argues that his client, a San Francisco-based entrepreneur with established ties to California’s legal marijuana business space, was “duped” by Parnas and Fruman, who only brought Kukushkin into their joint venture for access to Muraviev’s financing.

Lefcourt, who repeatedly declined to cross-examine some of the government’s witnesses, said Kukushkin had no interest in politics or political contributions, and was only interested in expanding legal cannabis business in states that allow recreational use and sales.

Kukushkin’s counsel said they plan to rest their defense case without calling any witnesses.

Parnas’ attorneys, meanwhile, indicated that he may tentatively take the stand in his own defense on Wednesday.

Joseph Ahearn, a top fundraising official of the America First Action super PAC, was the first witness called by Parnas’ defense on Tuesday to testify on his interactions with Parnas and Fruman and their $325,000 donation.

Ahearn testified Tuesday against under an immunity order signed by Judge Oetken that allowed him to invoke the privilege against self-incrimination.

Parnas’ time in Trump’s orbit put him in close contact with current Republican co-chair, Tommy Hicks Jr., who previously headed America First Action.

Documents released by Congress during Trump’s first impeachment proceedings showed that Parnas and Hicks communicated at least 278 times via WhatsApp, including about the Ukraine backchannel work with Giuliani. Documents released by Congress also show that Parnas exchanged at least 675 messages with Ahearn.

Under a stipulation of the trial, Parnas’ trial saw no discussion of the time he spent traversing Europe with Giuliani as part of the Trump camp’s efforts to gin up political dirt on then-presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

While Giuliani was not a named as a defendant in the straw donor indictment, federal investigators from the Southern District of New York executed a search warrant in late April of his Manhattan apartment and office, seizing electronic devices in a predawn raid that coincided with the search warrant executed in the Washington area against Victoria Toensing, another Giuliani ally and onetime Trump attorney.

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