A pair of Eastern European businessmen planned to funnel $1 million in foreign money into US elections during the 2018 campaign season through illegal straw donations, a Manhattan prosecutor charged Wednesday as their trial got underway.
Lev Parnas, an associate of Rudy Giuliani, and Andrey Kukushkin hatched the donation scheme in an attempt to bolster a marijuana business by donating to candidates who could in turn help them secure licenses needed for the pot enterprise, Assistant US Attorney Aline Flodr said.
“That is what secret foreign money infiltrating American elections looks like,” Flodr told jurors. “That is why we’re here.”
The vast sum of money was donated by Russian businessman Andrey Muraviev — or “Big Andrey” — and paid in two separate payments of $500,000, Flodr said.
The alleged crooks shielded the transfers by moving the money to an import-export business controlled by a friend of Parnas and then ultimately to accounts Parnas controlled.
“It was just a charade,” Flodr said of the transfers, which made no mention that the money was to be used as political donations in order to further the interest of their marijuana business.
A total of just $100,000 fronted by Muraviev was donated to candidates as part of the scheme, Flodr said. She told jurors that despite the seemingly small amount of cash that actually flowed to campaigns, it’s still a crime for Parnas and Kukushkin to seek illegal contributions of more than $25,000.
Both Soviet-born Parnas and Kukushkin have pleaded not guilty in the case.
Lawyers for the pair said the evidence will show neither man knowingly made illegal contributions.
An attorney for Kukushkin, Gerald Lefcourt, said he was taken advantage of by a third co-defendant, Igor Fruman, who pleaded guilty in the case earlier this month.
Fruman considered Kukushkin, who was born in Ukraine, a “rube” who was unsophisticated and inexperienced — and ultimately cut him out of his discussions with Muraviev and sought money from the Russian tycoon independently.
An attorney for Parnas, Joseph Bondy, said the evidence would clear his client.
“He didn’t knowingly, willfully violate any federal election laws,” Bondy said.
He added the notion that the pair could influence marijuana law by making campaign contributions was “absurd.”
Parnas and Fruman once helped Giuliani investigate the Ukrainian business dealings of Hunter Biden, President Biden’s son.