NEW YORK – Lev Parnas once pitched himself in TV interviews and through an unorthodox publicity campaign by his lawyer as someone who could expose corruption in the Trump Administration over its dealings in Ukraine.
Less than two years later and with less fanfare, the 49-year-old is going on trial in a federal case that makes him out to be more of an ordinary grifter than a whistleblower who would bring down former President Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani.
Jury selection is scheduled to begin Tuesday in a trial in which Parnas, a Soviet-born Florida businessman, and a co-defendant, Ukraine-born investor Andrey Kukushkin, are accused of making illegal campaign contributions to U.S. politicians in order to further their business interests.
Parnas and another Soviet-born Florida businessman who has already pleaded guilty in the case, Igor Fruman, initially caught the attention of journalists and investigators after making big donations through a corporate entity to Republican political committees, including a $325,000 donation in 2018 to America First Action, a super PAC supporting Trump.
The pair then became middlemen in Giuliani's effort to discredit then-candidate Joe Biden. They connected Giuliani with Ukrainian officials as the former New York City mayor tried to get that country to open an investigation into the future president's son, Hunter. Ukrainian tycoons and officials, meanwhile, sought Giuliani's help connecting with the Trump administration.
Federal prosecutors in New York City, however, have made it clear that anyone looking for the trial to produce new, damaging information about Trump or Giuliani will be disappointed.
They told U.S. District Judge Paul Oetken last week that while jurors will likely hear about how Parnas and Fruman tried to tout their influence as international fixers by sharing photos of themselves with Trump and Giuliani, the Republican ex-president and his former personal lawyer “will come up very peripherally" at the trial.
Prosecutors have also quietly dropped one of the most intriguing allegations in the original indictment: That Parnas and Fruman donated money to American politicians as part of an effort by Ukrainian figures to oust the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie L. Yovanovitch, who later became a central figure in impeachment proceedings against Trump.
When the charges were announced in 2019, then-U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman highlighted the Yovanovitch allegations, saying the defendants “sought political influence not only to advance their own financial interests but to advance the political interests of at least one foreign official – a Ukrainian government official who sought the dismissal of the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.”
Prosecutors later wrote to the judge that the allegation was dropped from a revised indictment in an effort to “streamline” the case, but offered no further explanation.
Giuliani has said he didn’t know about any illegal campaign contributions and is not charged in the case, although his work in Ukraine remains the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation.
Federal agents searched Giuliani's New York City home and office last April, carting away computers and phones as part of an inquiry into whether some of the work he did required him to register as a foreign agent. Giuliani has said his only client was Trump.
With the Ukraine allegations gone, the trial is expected to focus on charges that Parnas exceeded limits on personal campaign contributions by disguising the origin of the money. U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, a Texas Republican, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and political committees aimed at supporting Republicans running for Congress were among those that got donations.
Part of the case alleges that Parnas and Kukushkin were straw donors for Andrey Muraviev, a wealthy Russian investor in the burgeoning legal marijuana market in the United States.
The indictment alleges that Muraviev put up $1 million for donations to be made to politicians in several states, including Nevada, where the group was hoping to enter the legal marijuana business.
Prosecutors haven't alleged that the politicians who got the money were aware it came from prohibited sources. Muraviev hasn't been charged.
The defense hopes to portray Parnas as an investor who was trying to develop legitimate marijuana and other business ventures, including an energy company, Global Energy Producers, that would be involved in exporting natural gas to Europe.
He and Fruman were in part seeking connections “that could best further their nascent energy business interests,” defense attorney Joseph Bondy wrote in a court filing. He said the $1 million from Muraviev went to Fruman — not to Parnas — and was a personal loan, made in the wake of a waning Nevada cannabis venture.
Kukushkin's attorney, Gerald Lefcourt, argued in a recent court filing that his client, a San Francisco-based entrepreneur with longstanding ties to legal marijuana businesses in California, was just trying to start another such legitimate venture and was “duped” by Parnas and Fruman.
He accused them of simply stealing Muraviev’s $1 million "to pay their debts, fund their own separate business, promote their own personal interests, support their lifestyle and sustain themselves until they could find another victim,” Lefcourt wrote. “Even the politicians who fell over themselves to be associated with Messrs. Parnas and Fruman and provided them with unfettered access were duped.”
Another defendant in the case, David Correia, pleaded guilty to charges of making false statements to the Federal Election Commission and wire fraud conspiracy. The conspiracy count was related to an allegation that he defrauded investors in a an insurance company that had paid Giuliani a $500,000 consulting fee.
Unlike Fruman, who remained out of the spotlight and recently pleaded guilty to soliciting illegal campaign contributions, Parnas sought a starring role in Trump's first impeachment by providing his personal records to congressional investigators.
With Parnas under indictment in 2020, Bondy began tweeting photos of his client with Giuliani and Republican lawmakers with the hashtag #LetLevSpeak. The attorney also provided congressional investigators with a recording of Parnas speaking with Trump about Yovanovitch, the U.S. ambassador.
In a portion of the tape, first obtained by ABC News, a voice that appears to be Parnas can be heard saying, “She’s basically walking around telling everybody: ‘Wait, he’s gonna get impeached. Just wait.’” A speaker who appears to be Trump then responds: “Get rid of her! ... Take her out. OK? Do it.”
The U.S. Senate, then controlled by Republicans, acquitted Trump in 2020 of allegations that he abused his power by threatening to withhold military aid for Ukraine unless its leaders investigated the Bidens.