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Jurors introduced to Giuliani cronies accused of funneling ‘secret foreign money’ into US elections

Wednesday marked the start of the long-delayed, in-person trial of former Giuliani business associate Lev Parnas, who was arrested almost two years ago for helping a Russian businessman contribute illegally to U.S. political campaigns.

MANHATTAN (CN) — Two Ukrainian former business associates of Rudy Giuliani insist they were just pursuing legal cannabis and natural gas enterprises, but federal prosecutors told jurors Wednesday that the men intentionally flouted campaign-finance laws.

“You will learn that their crimes were blatant,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Aline Flodr said Wednesday morning during the government’s opening arguments in an in-personal trial at the Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse in lower Manhattan.

Flodr charged that co-defendants Lev Parnas and Andrey Kukushkin paid careful attention to laws about legalized marijuana businesses, but they and their co-conspirators chose to violate federal law governing foreign contributions to U.S. elections.

The government’s six-count superseding indictment accuses Parnas, 49, and Kukushikin, 48, of funneling $1 million from a Russian businessman, Andrei Muraviev, in two $500,000 payments that became political contributions as part of an effort to expand his legal marijuana businesses in the United States.

“That is what secret foreign money infiltrating U.S. elections looks like,” the assistant U.S. attorney told jurors. “That is what we’re here about it.”

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.

Parnas became known publicly for aiding Giuliani’s effort to convince the government of Ukraine to investigate the son of then-presidential candidate Joe Biden during the buildup to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, in connection with the younger Biden’s board position at a Ukrainian natural gas company.

While the alleged smear campaign is not expected to be part of the Parnas and Kukushkin trial, Giuliani reportedly received $500,000 in 2018 for work for Parnas' company Fraud Guarantee, but Giuliani was never charged, and prosecutors in the case have not alleged that he knew anything about illegal campaign contributions. Parnas faces a separate severed trial in connection to this scheme.

Andrey Kukushkin, right, leaves federal court in New York on Oct. 17, 2019, after pleading not guilty to charges that he conspired with associates of Rudy Giuliani to make illegal campaign contributions. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

At jury selection Tuesday, candidates learned that the names of famous politicians and others, including Giuliani and former President Donald Trump, will mainly arise as evidence is introduced to show how Parnas tried to parlay his associations with prominent individuals to boost his own interests.

Attorney Joseph Bondy, representing Parnas, began his 33-minute opening statement by saying: “Lev Parnas is not guilty. That’s what the evidence in this case will show you. He didn’t knowingly, willfully violate any federal election laws. The government will be unable to bear their burden of proving Mr. Parnas guilty.”

Bondy, who serves on the Board of Directors for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), pointed out that Parnas had used his brief moment as mover and shaker among the elite donors, lawyers and lobbyists surrounding Trump to push for the legalization of marijuana at the federal level.

During a meeting at the Trump International Hotel in 2018, Parnas gave the then-president a memorandum in support of national cannabis legalization as GOP platform for the 2018 midterm elections.

On another occasion, Bondy said, Parnas sat front row at a retreat for the political action committee America First Action to ask then-Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin when marijuana businesses would be able to bank without federal scrutiny.

Kukushkin’s attorney, Gerald Lefcourt, has said his client, a San Francisco-based entrepreneur with established ties to California’s legal marijuana business space, was “duped” by Parnas and Igor Fruman, a co-defendant who pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.

Lefcourt said his client had no interest in politics or political contributions, and was only interested expanding legal cannabis business in states that allow recreational use and sales.

Around the time Kukushkin met Parnas and Fruman in mid-2018, he and the Russian financier Muraviev had purchased acres and acres of property in Livermore, California, and started a company called Oasis with the intention to legally cultivate marijuana with a license, Lefcourt said during his 26-minute opening argument.

Any of alleged straw donations made by Parnas in the spring of 2018 occurred before Kukushkin ever met or went into business with him, the defense attorney argued.

Lefcourt insisted that Kukushkin, who is only charged on two of the indictment’s six counts, was never an equal co-conspirator in Parnas and Fruman’s fraud, and instead was pegged as an easy mark and used by them for access to “Big Andrei” and his deep pockets.

David Corriea, the fourth co-defendant in the original indictment who pleaded guilty to two counts one year ago, allegedly told Parnas Kukushkin was “literally retarded,” Lefcourt said during his opening argument.

“I don’t know whether tycoon is the right way to describe someone who became successful in business,” Lefcourt remarked, challenging the government’s repeated characterization of Muraviev as “the Russian tycoon.”

Kukushkin’s attorney argued that Parnas and Fruman had a purported joint venture for marijuana licenses to steal $1 million from “Big Andrei” Muraviev that they spent on credit debt and personal expenses, not political contributions.

The trial is being presided over by Obama-appointed U.S. District Judge J. Paul Oetken, who expects the in-person trial to take two weeks.

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