“These men shoveled thousands and thousands of dollars of foreign money to U.S. politicians, laughing about how they were breaking the law along the way,” Flodr said in the prosecution’s opening statement. “Their crimes were blatant. … That is what secret foreign money infiltrating an American election looks like.”
While the prosecutor avoided mention of Trump and Giuliani in her opening and even omitted the Republican affiliation of the candidates and groups that got the money, Parnas’ attorney Joseph Bondy was more direct with the jury about his client’s political allegiances. The defense lawyer said that Parnas became a fan of Trump and other GOP candidates, making and pledging big money to get access during the 2018 election cycle.
“That might not be some of our stride, but that’s what he was interested in,” Bondy said. “He brought the president a memorandum on marijuana — legalizing marijuana as a Republican midterm point. … The courage you will see of a person going, talking to Donald Trump in a room full of older donors about legalizing cannabis. … It never occurred, of course.”
The trial is taking jurors inside the world of high-dollar political campaign fundraising, including an intimate dinner with Trump at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., in April 2018 and a “leadership summit” held there two months later. Witnesses scheduled to testify for the prosecution include the fundraising chief for pro-Trump super PAC America First Action, as well as former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt — the Trump-endorsed candidate to unseat Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-Nev.) next year.
Prosecutors said the politicians and fundraisers involved were unaware that the money originated overseas or that the names of the donors reported in official records obscured the true source of the funds.
Parnas’ defense attorney suggested his client was unsophisticated and was taken advantage of by political fundraisers. “They’re like the strangler fig that will grab you and wrap themselves around you,” Bondy said.
Bondy also said his client lacked understanding about the finer points of U.S. campaign finance law. “He doesn’t have a graduate degree. He’s not a lawyer. He hasn’t worked at the [Federal Election Commission]. … He hasn’t worked for a political campaign,” the defense attorney said.
While ignorance of the law is typically no excuse, conviction on criminal charges related to campaign finance requires a showing that the defendant knew what he was doing was against the law. “There was no willfulness. There was no intention,” Bondy said.
With Parnas’ defense contending that he did not know foreign or “straw” donations were illegal, Flodr argued to jurors that the attention the men paid to the details of marijuana-licensing laws undercut any possibility that they thought such donations were permitted.
“You will see this group paid careful attention to laws legalizing marijuana, but chose to break the simple law about foreigners not donating to American elections,” the prosecutor said.
Giuliani — who is not expected to testify — has denied wrongdoing, although he has come under close scrutiny in a related investigation of alleged violations of foreign-agent registration laws led by the same prosecutors overseeing the case against Parnas and overseen by the judge handling the current trial, J. Paul Oetken, an appointee of President Barack Obama.
In April, the FBI raided Giuliani’s home and office, seizing phones and other electronics as part of the foreign-influence investigation.
The initial indictment returned against Parnas and three other men in October 2019 alleged that part of the scheme involved trying to influence U.S. officials to remove the then-U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. Prosecutors quietly removed that allegation during a revision to the charges last year.
Giuliani was deeply involved in the effort to oust Yovanovitch, who was eventually recalled in May 2019. The episode, and a related effort to get Ukraine to announce an investigation into then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, led to Trump’s first impeachment by the House and ultimate acquittal by the Senate.
In recent weeks, prosecutors have sought to play down the roles Giuliani and Trump were likely to play in evidence and testimony at the trial, while defense attorneys warned the judge that those names would come up frequently and that many of the photos of the fundraising events in question show Giuliani or Trump.
In addition, at the request of defense lawyers and with the agreement of the prosecution, Oetken agreed to remove from the current trial the count in the indictment that is most closely tied to Giuliani: the allegation that an anti-fraud business venture Parnas and co-defendant David Correia started called “Fraud Guarantee” was itself a fraudulent scheme the men used to pay millions of dollars in their own personal expenses.
Correia pleaded guilty last year and is serving a one-year sentence at a federal prison in North Carolina.
Meanwhile, another man charged in the foreign-donation scheme — Igor Fruman — struck a deal with prosecutors and pleaded guilty last month to soliciting a foreigner to make a U.S. campaign contribution, although the plea bargain does not require him to cooperate with the investigation. Fruman is awaiting sentencing.
Giuliani has also sought to distance himself from the case, claiming that he was unaware of any illegal campaign donations or fraud. However, it is clear he was far from a casual acquaintance of Parnas.
The former mayor has acknowledged accepting a $500,000 consulting fee for work on the “Fraud Guarantee” business. In addition, Giuliani was close enough to Parnas to invite him to attend former President George H.W. Bush’s funeral in December 2018. Video and photos show Giuliani and Parnas arriving together to the ceremony at the National Cathedral in Washington.
One challenge Parnas faces at the trial: Kukushkin, the only remaining co-defendant who has not pleaded guilty, is arguing to jurors that there was never an agreement to make illegal campaign donations because Parnas and Fruman intended all along to steal the money.
“This case is more than about campaign contributions. It’s about how $1 million was stolen,” Kukushkin’s attorney Gerald Lefcourt said.
At a hearing last week, Oetken warned Lefcourt that the claim wasn’t really a legal defense for his client, but the judge appeared to leave the door open for Lefcourt to try to push blame for any wrongdoing onto Parnas.
Lefcourt did just that Wednesday morning, contending that Parnas and Fruman secretly spent money loaned for business purposes to pay off a massive credit card bill of nearly half a million dollars. “Almost all of it goes to pay off the credit card. If it was supposed to go to the joint venture, it didn’t,” Lefcourt said.
Lefcourt also said Parnas and Fruman were so “desperate” to get money out of Muraviev that they sent him a list of donations they never made, including $125,000 to then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and $35,000 to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) “There’s a whole list of contributions that you will see is lies,” the defense attorney said.
Even though Kukushkin’s legal team is pointing the finger at Parnas, the defense attorneys did agree that campaign finance law is complex. Lefcourt painted his client as apolitical, said he’d never voted and couldn’t be expected to be aware of such requirements.
“The campaign finance rules that you’ve heard about are mind-boggling and complicated,” Lefcourt said. “Sometimes corporations can donate to campaigns. Sometimes they can’t. Some foreign nationals can donate to campaigns. Others can’t. … There’s a million rules.”
Lefcourt did agree that his client wasn’t eager to advertise the involvement of Muraviev in the cannabis venture, but said that was due to the political heat generated by special counsel Robert Mueller’s highly publicized investigation into alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
“That political windstorm that everyday produced news articles was what was going on during this time,” the defense lawyer noted. “We all remember that paranoia that you probably felt if you were Russian in that atmosphere.”
Jurors also heard Wednesday from four prosecution witnesses: The 2018 GOP nominee for Nevada attorney general, Wesley Duncan; Customs and Border Protection Officer Madeleine Garcia; and two lawyers with clients in the cannabis industry, California attorney Brad Hirsch and Nevada attorney Daniel Stewart.
Duncan discussed soliciting a $10,000 contribution from Parnas at the suggestion of Scott Will, an official with the Republican Attorneys General Association. Duncan said Parnas never gave, but the campaign eventually received that amount from Fruman.
Duncan said he took the money even though he has concerns about legalizing marijuana. “I do think that there are certain degrading elements to it,” he said.
Garcia described interviewing Muraviev as he arrived on a flight from Russia and presented a Russian passport. The testimony apparently offered proof that Muraviev is a Russian citizen.
Hirsch talked about setting up a limited liability company for Murvaiev, Kukushkin and others in California, but said he no longer works with the men.
“I couldn’t do business with Mr. Kukushkin anymore,” he said as a defense lawyer objected.
Stewart, who is expected to return to the stand on Thursday, gave jurors an overview of the licensing process for marijuana ventures in Nevada and the keen competition for the licenses then men charged in the case were seeking. Such permits can be worth “in the single to tens of millions of dollars,” the attorney said.