Ex-Giuliani associate Parnas pleads not guilty as trial looms, politics weigh

FILE PHOTO: Ukrainian-American businessman Lev Parnas speaks outside the Manhattan Federal Court in the Manhattan borough of New York
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By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Lev Parnas, who helped Donald Trump's former lawyer Rudy Giuliani collect damaging information about Joe Biden before the Democrat won the 2020 presidential election, pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to a narrowed indictment alleging campaign finance and other crimes.

A week before his scheduled trial, Parnas entered his plea before U.S. District Judge Paul Oetken in Manhattan, who signaled he will try to keep jurors focused without bias on the evidence, regardless of their views about Giuliani and Trump.

The Ukraine-born Parnas has been charged with concealing an illegal $325,000 donation to support Trump's unsuccessful re-election campaign.

Parnas and his co-defendant, Andrey Kukushkin, were also charged with illegally using donations to U.S. politicians from a Russian businessman to obtain legal, recreational marijuana distribution licenses. Kukushkin also pleaded not guilty.

A former co-defendant, Igor Fruman, pleaded guilty on Sept. 10 to soliciting money from a foreign national in connection with the marijuana business, and is to be sentenced in January.

Jury selection begins on Oct. 12 and could last two days, reflecting what Kukushkin's lawyer Gerald Lefcourt called the "polarized" political climate.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Hagan Scotten told Oetken the government's case could last into the trial's second week, and mentions of Giuliani and Trump would come up "peripherally."

He also said jurors' feelings about Trump did not affect his last trial in July, when former Chicago bank chief Stephen Calk was convicted of approving risky loans to former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort in a bid for a top administration post.

"I don't think the question ... should be 'Do you have strong feelings about former President Donald Trump?' Who doesn't, in some sense?" Scotten said.

One government witness is Adam Laxalt, a top candidate for the 2022 Republican nomination for a Senate seat in Nevada, who is expected to testify he was deceived into believing $10,000 of donations made in Fruman's name to his unsuccessful 2018 run for governor were legitimate.

Oetken said Parnas' lawyer cannot question Laxalt about his support for overturning Biden's election win over Trump, saying it would create "a real distraction."

Communications on a possible guilty plea for Parnas broke down several months ago.

Prosecutors never made a plea offer to Kukushkin, who had sought a deferred prosecution agreement.

Parnas' case had included a charge he conned people into investing more than $2 million in a fraud insurance company, Fraud Guarantee. Prosecutors removed that charge from the indictment in August.

Fruman did not agree to cooperate with prosecutors examining Giuliani's dealings in Ukraine https://www.reuters.com/world/us/judge-orders-special-master-review-rudolph-giulianis-electronic-devices-2021-05-28, including whether the onetime New York City mayor violated lobbying laws while serving as Trump's personal lawyer.

Giuliani had enlisted Parnas and Fruman to dig up dirt in Ukraine about Biden and his son Hunter before the 2020 election.

Prosecutors said Parnas and Fruman also aided an effort to oust then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who Trump fired in May 2019.

Giuliani has not been charged and has denied wrongdoing.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by David Gregorio)

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