NYC jury hears closings at Giuliani associate's fraud trial

FILE - Lev Parnas exits the federal court after a hearing on Feb. 3, 2020, in New York City. (Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)

An associate of Rudy Giuliani hatched a scheme to funnel $1 million in funds from a wealthy Russian financier into U.S. elections knowing full well he was breaking campaign finance laws, a prosecutor said Thursday during closing arguments at a federal trial.

A defense attorney countered by telling the New York City jury that the government failed to prove its case against Lev Parnas.

After closings were finished, Judge J. Paul Oetken read instructions on the law to jurors and told them to begin deliberations when they return Friday morning.

In his closing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Hagan Scotten accused Parnas and a co-defendant, Andrey Kukushkin, of using "lies and tricks" to conceal the source of the money.

Parnas made a series of straw donations despite being "told again and again that he couldn’t donate somebody else’s money," Scotten said.

The defendant lied to the financier, Andrey Muraviev, about how much he was actually donating, the prosecutor said. He also failed to come through on pledges he was making to candidates, he added.

"Put simply, Parnas is ripping everybody off," he said.

Scotten said the prosecution was about a conspiracy "to bring Andrey Muraviev's wealth and corruption into American politics."

He added: "The voters would never know whose money was pouring into our elections."

Defense attorney Joseph Bondy called the allegations against Parnas "absurd." The lawyer said his client was a legitimate businessperson trying to use loans from Muraviev 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. He told jurors his client "doesn't want your sympathy. He wants a verdict based on the facts and the law."

As Bondy finished his closing, Parnas became emotional while looking toward the jury, nodding his head repeatedly as Bondy described how his client grew up in Brooklyn, saying: "He's a part of us. He's a part of our community." After the jury left the room, Parnas hugged his attorney.

Kukushkin's lawyer, Gerald Lefcourt, told jurors that his client was not guilty and had "no criminal intent whatsoever."

Lefcourt said there was not just reasonable doubt in the case, but there was "overwhelming doubt."

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His client, he said, was focused on developing a legal marijuana business and had no interest in spending any of Muraviev's money on anything political.

Parnas, a Florida businessperson, and Kukushkin have pleaded not guilty to conspiring to use the investment from Muraviev to contribute to politicians they thought could advance their business interests, including the energy company and legal marijuana industry startups. Giuliani is not charged in the case.

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 Donald 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.

Though Giuliani is not part of the case, he is under investigation in New York for whether he was required to register as an agent of a foreign government for actions he said he took in his capacity as a private attorney for then-President Trump.