MANHATTAN (CN) — Lev Parnas, the onetime business associate of Rudy Giuliani while he was the personal attorney for then-President Donald Trump, was found guilty on six criminal counts by a jury in New York federal court on Friday.
Following a weeklong trial in Manhattan federal court, jurors convicted Parnas, a Ukraine-born, first-time political donor who found his way into the inner circle of lobbyists and fundraisers in Trump’s Washington, on all six counts.
The jury deliberated for five hours before returning the guilty verdicts Friday afternoon.
Federal prosecutors accused Parnas, 49, and co-defendant Andrey Kukushin, 48, of participating in a scheme that involved facilitating and concealing illegal political donations in U.S. elections that were funded by wealthy Russian businessman Andrey Muraviev.
Kukushkin was found guilty on the two counts on which he was charged.
According to the government’s case, Muraviev and Parnas sought to buy up marijuana retail licenses in states that had legalized recreational use, but were nervous about attaching Muraviev’s name to political donations because of “his Russian roots and current political paranoia about it” around the time of special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
The October 2019 arrest of Parnas and his business partner Igor Fruman at Dulles airport — they were heading out of the country with one-way tickets to Vienna — occurred in the thick of Mueller’s investigation, just days after reports emerged that Giuliani sought profits for Soviet-born real estate entrepreneurs in Ukraine.
The bombshell charges instantly reverberated on Capitol Hill. House Democrats had issued subpoenas to the Parnas and Fruman in connection with Trump’s then-ongoing first impeachment inquiry.
The two men were both represented at the time by John Dowd, Trump’s former lawyer, who told Congress they would refuse to comply with the depositions.
Initially Parnas, Kukushkin, Fruman and co-defendant David Corriea pleaded not guilty to the indictment in October 2019.
Correia and Fruman both separately pleaded guilty in the last year, however, leaving just Parnas and Kukushkin headed to trial in the Southern District of New York two years later.
The government’s six-count superseding indictment accused Parnas and Kukushikin of funneling $1 million of foreign funds from Muraviev in two $500,000 political contributions as part of an effort to expand his foothold on legal marijuana businesses in the United States.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicolas Roos, who previously landed a three-year sentence for Trump’s ex-fixer Michael Cohen, was the lead prosecutor on the case.
Giuliani has denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged in connection with the straw-donor scheme. His Manhattan apartment and office were nevertheless raided by the FBI in May in connection with an ongoing probe related to the former New York City mayor’s business dealings in Ukraine.
Parnas’ defense attorney Joseph Bondy called the government’s allegations against Parnas “absurd.”
Bondy insisted throughout the weeklong trial 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), argued the government’s theory that Parnas was buying preferential pay-to-play treatment for marijuana business licenses 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.”
Bondy praised Parnas’ “courage” for offering then-President Trump a memo in support of ending the federal prohibition on marijuana.
Kukushkin’s attorney Gerald Lefcourt, who called no defense witnesses at trial, maintained 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 during his closing argument Thursday afternoon. “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.
Prosecutors asked for an immediate remand to prison following the verdict, but U.S. District Judge J. Paul Oetken declined the request for remand, finding that neither Parnas nor Kukushkin are a risk of flight, noting that they had both showed up to court for about two years.
Damian Williams, the newly-appointed U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, applauded the verdict Friday afternoon.
“A unanimous federal jury has found that Lev Parnas and Andrey Kukushkin conspired to manipulate the United States political system for their own financial gain,” Williams said in a statement. “Campaign finance laws are designed to protect the integrity of our free and fair elections — unencumbered by foreign interests or influence — and safeguarding those laws is essential to preserving the freedoms that Americans hold sacred.”
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.
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