A former associate of
is set to go to trial Tuesday on campaign-finance charges, bringing renewed attention to a key figure in former President
first impeachment and the push by federal investigators to root out foreign influence in U.S. elections.
The criminal trial of
49 years old, is only tangentially related to what made him a figure of national scrutiny in 2019—his role aiding former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s effort to persuade Ukrainian officials to investigate
then Mr. Trump’s top Democratic rival, and Mr. Biden’s son Hunter. Mr. Parnas has said he arranged meetings and carried messages for Mr. Giuliani in Ukraine and has spoken of having a role in the removal of the U.S. ambassador in Kyiv.
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Those efforts were a central part of the first Trump impeachment inquiry, which began in 2019 and resulted in the president’s acquittal in the Senate for alleged abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
In a Manhattan courtroom, Mr. Parnas faces six criminal counts, including for one alleged scheme for conspiring to funnel money from a wealthy Russian national to U.S. candidates, and a separate alleged scheme for masking the true source of a $325,000 contribution to a pro-Trump super PAC. Federal law prohibits a foreign national from making political donations in U.S. elections. It is also illegal to make a political contribution in another person’s name.
In October 2019, the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York charged Mr. Parnas and another associate of Mr. Giuliani, Igor Fruman, with the alleged straw-donor schemes. Prosecutors have described Messrs. Parnas and Fruman as Florida businessmen who in 2018 made a flurry of donations to enhance their influence in political circles.
Joseph Bondy, a lawyer for Mr. Parnas, said that his client, a U.S. citizen who emigrated from Ukraine as a young child and only has a high-school education, didn’t know he was breaking federal election laws.
“We will argue that he had no knowledge or intention of violating the federal election laws,” Mr. Bondy said.
Mr. Fruman pleaded guilty on Sept. 10 to one count of soliciting political contributions from the Russian national, businessman Andrey Muraviev, that could be used to support candidates who could help a cannabis business.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment.
After his arrest, Mr. Parnas publicly broke with Mr. Trump and expressed willingness to work with congressional investigators. But Mr. Bondy has said he is worried about finding a fair jury after what he said was a negative portrayal of Mr. Parnas in the media. Messrs. Trump and Giuliani and other political figures are likely to figure in the trial, potentially polarizing the jury further.
Jury selection is set to begin Tuesday morning. U.S. District Judge J. Paul Oetken has said that it is possible to find an impartial jury but that he might question prospective jurors about their political beliefs in private.
A lawyer for Mr. Giuliani declined to comment. Mr. Giuliani has denied any wrongdoing with Messrs. Parnas and Fruman.
Representatives for Mr. Trump didn’t respond to a request for comment. Mr. Trump has said he doesn’t know Messrs. Parnas and Fruman, though he has acknowledged taking pictures together.
Former special counsel
investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 elections will likely also arise as a topic at trial. Prosecutors said in court papers that the extensive coverage of the probe in 2018 shows that anyone following the news would know donating Russian money to U.S. political candidates was illegal.
Andrey Kukushkin, a California businessman, is also on trial with Mr. Parnas. He is charged with conspiring with Messrs. Parnas and Fruman to make more than $25,000 in political donations in a calendar year with funds from Mr. Muraviev, the Russian businessman.
In September and October of 2018, Mr. Muraviev wired $1 million to a bank account controlled by Mr. Fruman for the donations, according to the indictment.
Mr. Kukushkin has pleaded not guilty. Mr. Muraviev isn’t charged in the case.
Gerald Lefcourt, a lawyer for Mr. Kukushkin, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Muraviev’s money was a loan for a cannabis business venture, Mr. Lefcourt has said in court filings. Messrs Muraviev and Kukushkin were the victims of fraud, Mr. Lefcourt has said. Messrs. Parnas and Fruman used the money to cover their own personal expenses and didn’t put any toward the cannabis business, he has said.
Mr. Parnas is the only one of the two defendants in the trial accused of making a $325,000 donation to the pro-Trump super PAC America First Action in May 2018 in the name of his and Mr. Fruman’s company, Global Energy Producers, to give the appearance of a successful business rather than one with no real funds. In reality, the money came from a private loan that Mr. Fruman obtained, according to prosecutors.
Mr. Bondy has said that Global Energy Producers was a legitimate energy startup designed to buy liquid natural gas in the U.S. to ship overseas.
—Deanna Paul contributed to this article.
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