Prosecutors asked a federal jury on Thursday to convict a business associate of President Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani of funneling more than $150,000 from a Russian businessman into American political campaigns, in a bid to score lucrative licenses in the United States’ booming legal cannabis industry.
However, a lawyer for the defendant, Florida businessman Lev Parnas, said that the donations were legitimate and that there was a lack of evidence the donations were directed from abroad or given on behalf of others — actions that violate U.S. campaign finance laws.
Prosecutors alleged that Parnas and a business partner who already pleaded guilty in the case, Igor Fruman, convinced a Russian businessman, Andrey Muraviev, that the U.S. political system was a turnstile-like, pay-to-play operation where cannabis-industry licenses could be obtained by making big donations to American politicians.
“There was an agreement to bring Andrey Muraviev’s wealth and corruption into American politics,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Hagan Scotten told the jury in New York. “It is plain as day that these defendants agreed to donate Muraviev’s money to U.S. political campaigns. … There’s nothing wrong with being Russian and there’s nothing wrong in selling marijuana with a license. You just can’t donate to American politicians to get that license.”
Jurors heard during the trial from some recipients of the largesse of Parnas and his associates. One of those recipients, Adam Laxalt, is a former Nevada attorney general who is running to unseat Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-Nev.) next year.
No candidate or campaign has been charged with wrongdoing in the case, and prosecutors have said the political groups were unaware at the time that the donations were being given on behalf of others or that the money originated with Muraviev.
However, the picture of high-dollar political fundraising wasn’t flattering.
“They want help from politicians. … The politicians hanging out with Fruman and Parnas were raking it in just to meet with them,” Scotten said.
But despite the grip-and-grin photos, the men weren’t sincerely interested in politics. They were “acting like die-hard partisans when, in fact, they could care less about politics,” Scotten said.
Parnas’ attorney Joe Bondy said his client and others gave the donations under relentless pressure from Laxalt and other candidates and their aides.
“The fundraisers will come and strangle you and suck whatever they can out of you … all the strangler figs,” Bondy said. “Asking you, bludgeoning you, badgering you, chasing you for money, money, money money. … You don’t get to those events unless you pay the piper.”
Bondy asserted that all the donations at issue in the case, including $325,000 given to a pro-Trump super PAC, were legal.
“There was no effort to hide anything whatsoever. There was no effort to make a donation in the name of another person whatsoever,” the defense attorney said. “This is not some hidden payment through some shell company that’s designed to mislead. Poppycock!”
While the trial and the broader case have garnered attention because of the defendants’ tie to Giuliani, there was little, if any, mention of the former New York mayor and outspoken Trump defender in court on Thursday.
Giuliani has not been charged in the case and has denied any wrongdoing, but he was referenced on numerous occasions in evidence and testimony presented over the past couple of weeks. He is also hard to miss in a slew of photos prosecutors introduced as exhibits, showing Parnas and Giuliani barnstorming the country by private jet to support Republican candidates in advance of the 2018 election.
One of the photos depicts Parnas and Giuliani on the golf course, with both men sporting baseball caps emblazoned with the logo for “Fraud Guarantee,” a purported anti-fraud venture that prosecutors contend was itself fraudulent. Giuliani has acknowledged receiving $500,000 to advise the firm, but says he wasn’t aware of any fraud related to it.
U.S. District Court Judge Paul Oetken agreed earlier this year to sever the fraud-related charge against Parnas from the trial that took place on the campaign finance charges over the past two weeks.
There was no mention at the trial of the work Parnas, Fruman and Giuliani did together to try to oust the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and to broker a deal to get Ukrainian officials to announce an investigation into Joe Biden and his son Hunter. The initial indictment in the case said the ambassador's removal was a goal of the broader scheme, but prosecutors dropped that assertion when they revised the charges.
Following his arrest in 2018, Parnas was extensively debriefed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, but the two sides never managed to strike a deal.
Parnas elected not to take the stand in his own defense after Oetken ruled that Parnas could be questioned about “Fraud Guarantee,” even though jurors have not been told that he is facing a separate federal fraud charge relating to that company.
Defense attorneys have suggested that the prosecution is trying to play on patriotism and paranoia about Russian influence. Prosecutors noted to the jury that Muraviev's profile photo on social media appeared to show him mooning the Statue of Liberty. That prompted a soliloquy from Bondy about freedom.
"There's a picture of a person mooning the Statute of Liberty. Well, so what? You have the right to think, speak, feel, do what you want as long as you're not hurting [others.]" Bondy said. "Is it a symbol of hypocrisy for many of us, like a statue of Jefferson or Washington or Christopher Columbus? You can love America and still see the false promises. When people speak out in America, it's a good thing."
A total of four men were charged in the case: Parnas, Fruman, David Correia and Andrey Kukushkin. Guilty pleas from Fruman and Correia left Parnas and Kukushkin to face trial this month. Parnas faced pressure from both sides at the trial. While prosecutors accused him of making nearly half a million dollars in illegal campaign donations, Kukushkin's lawyers said Parnas and Fruman had essentially scammed him by taking money for the cannabis venture and spending it on lavish hotels, golf outings and private jets.
"This is the real conspiracy in this case," Kukushkin's attorney Gerald Lefcourt said. "They immediately took it and used it for personal things to pay an overdue bill. ... There was no agreement to commit a crime."
Bondy said Parnas wasn't scamming anyone, although his plans for energy and cannabis businesses were rather grandiose. "He was well over his head but he had some good ideas," the defense lawyer said.
Both defendants also argued they were not knowledgeable enough about campaign finance law to be found guilty in the case, which requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt that they knew their actions were illegal. Prosecutors contend that the prohibitions at stake — against straw donations and those from foreign nationals — are well-publicized and well-known.
"These are relatively simple rules," Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicolas Roos told the jury, which is expected to begin deliberations Friday morning.
The trial, held in a lower Manhattan courtroom fitted with Plexiglas boxes for coronavirus protection, has produced a series of unusually tense exchanges between the defense and prosecution.
After one such back-and-forth last week outside the presence of the jury, Bondy claimed that Scotten had asked FBI agents for “a sidearm” and “a bullet.” Scotten said it was a joking response to what he took as Bondy challenging him to a duel, but the defense lawyer said he’d done nothing of the sort and he took the comments as a threat.
Oetken said he didn’t think the prosecutor was serious, but he admonished both sides to watch their language.
That episode followed Bondy’s seeming to accuse prosecutors of injecting race into the case by playing a viral video included in a social media chat between the defendants.
At one point on Wednesday, during a session with the judge discussing jury instructions, Bondy described a prosecutor or his remarks as “just ignorant.”
There were few signs of the respect deficit on Thursday, but Bondy did, on at least three occasions in front of the jury, refer to Scotten as “Mr. Hagan.”