Tuesday, August 16, 2022 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Illegal campaign finance trial of Giuliani’s Ukrainian cronies heads to jury

A jury in New York federal court will decide the fate of two Ukrainian-born businessmen who stand accused of conspiring to funnel illegal foreign contributions into U.S. elections, but insist they were only interested in expanding their legal recreational cannabis start-up.

MANHATTAN (CN) — The campaign finance trial of Rudy Giuliani’s former business associate Lev Parnas approached its conclusion Thursday afternoon as attorneys delivered their closing arguments in the long-delayed criminal trial that was once forecast to expose corruption in the Trump administration’s shady dealings in Russia and Ukraine.

The government’s six-count superseding indictment accuses Parnas, 49, and co-defendant Andrey Kukushikin, 48, of conspiring to receive $1 million from wealthy Russian businessman Andrey Muraviev in two $500,000 political contributions as part of their joint effort to expand his legal marijuana businesses in the United States.

Just $100,000 of “Big Andrey’s” foreign money ultimately made its way into U.S. elections in violation of campaign finance laws, prosecutors said during the Justice Department’s closing argument on Thursday morning.

“It’s clear as day that there was an agreement here,” assistant U.S. attorney Hagan Scotten told jurors on Thursday, directing them to review encrypted WhatsApp chats in evidence that he argued demonstrate the conspiracy between the defendants and Muraviev to make campaign contributions that would be reimbursed with the Russian financier’s money to curry political favors that would benefit their legal cannabis venture.

The prosecutor accused Parnas and Kukushkin of deploying “lies and tricks” to conceal the foreign source of the money they used.

Parnas also made a series of straw donations in his own name using his business partner Igor Fruman’s money despite being “told again and again that he couldn’t donate somebody else’s money,” Scotten said.

Parnas also lied to Muraviev about how much of the Russian financier’s $1 million he was actually donating to political campaigns, the prosecutor said. Parnas also failed to come through on pledges he was making to the political candidates, he added.

“Put simply, Parnas is ripping everybody off,” he said.

The jury will begin their deliberations Friday morning.

Defense attorney Joseph Bondy called the government’s allegations against Parnas “absurd.”

Bondy insisted that Parnas was a legitimate businessperson trying to use loans from Muraviev as “bona-fide capital investment” to launch an energy company that would be involved in exporting natural gas to Europe.

“There was no effort to hide anything, whatsoever,” Bondy said during the defense’s closing arguments on Thursday afternoon.

Bondy, who serves on the Board of Directors for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said the government’s theory that Parnas was buying preferential treatment from conservative Republican politicians — including Pete Sessions, Ron De Santis and Adam Laxalt — “belies ignorance of cannabis law and licensing, and undermines what is a legitimate industry in the United States of America.”

“The notion that there’s a conspiracy to give one million dollars to people who look at marijuana as the ‘devil’s lettuce’ … would be foolish,” Bondy said. “It just doesn’t operate that way.”

Beyond the trial that concluded Thursday, Parnas still faces a separate trial in the Southern District of New York on additional fraud charges that were severed from the campaign finance indictment, which allege he and Florida businessman David Correa conspired to mislead potential investors to invest in Fraud Guarantee, the same company Parnas used to hire Giuliani in a relationship that has drawn scrutiny from federal prosecutors.

The conspiracy count arising from the alleged Fraud Guarantee scheme carries a maximum 20-year sentence and added forfeiture allegations to the superseding indictment.

Correia pleaded guilty last year for his involvement in the $2 million Fraud Guarantee investor fraud scheme and lying to the government. He was sentenced to year and a day in prison.

Kukushkin’s attorney Gerald Lefcourt, who called no defense witnesses at trial, insisted in his closing argument on Thursday that Kukushkin was only interested in expanding his legal recreational cannabis business in California, and was taken advantage of by Parnas and Fruman for access to Muraviev’s wealth.

“This is the real conspiracy in this case,” Lefcourt said. “There was no agreement to commit a crime,” he added. “Any agreement was for the cannabis business and obviously one party was pretending to be interested, pretending to be a partner.”

Parnas, Fruman and Corriea saw Kukushkin “as a rube, someone they could get over,” Lefcort said Thursday.

“He had no knowledge of what Parnas and Fruman were up to,” Kukushkin’s attorney argued.

Fruman, a co-defendant who initially pleaded not guilty at the time of his October 2019 arrest with Parnas at Dulles Airport, pleaded guilty last month to a single count of the government’s superseding indictment, which charged him with solicitation of a contribution by foreign national. He faces a maximum sentence of up to five years in prison, with a guidelines maximum at 46 months incarceration.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.

Loading
Loading...