Former Trump super PAC official testifies at trial of Giuliani associate

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A top fundraiser for a major pro-Trump super PAC testified at a criminal campaign finance trial on Tuesday that he thought that hundreds of thousands of dollars donated to Republican political groups in 2018 by Lev Parnas was legal to accept at the time it came in.

Joseph Ahearn, who served as finance director of America First Action, testified as a defense witness at the federal trial of Parnas, a Florida businessperson and an associate of Rudy Giuliani, in New York after prosecutors scratched him from their witness list.

Parnas is accused of funneling money from a Russian businessperson into U.S. campaigns as part of an effort to get licenses to enter the legal cannabis business in several U.S. states.

Ahearn testified that a July 2018 article in the Daily Beast drew attention to a $325,000 contribution to the PAC America First Action that Parnas arranged through a largely unknown business called Global Energy Partners. That story triggered a formal complaint to the Federal Election Commission that the firm was essentially a shell company set up to make donations.

“I don’t remember specifically, but it was clearly an issue,” Ahearn said under questioning by Parnas’ attorney Joseph Bondy.

Bondy suggested to jurors that after the FEC complaint was filed, Ahearn suggested to Parnas that he go “full MAGA” over it. The defense lawyer asked Ahearn to elaborate on what that meant, but the judge sustained a prosecution objection to the question.

Ahearn said that at that time he thought that Parnas and associates were involved in the energy industry. “I believe I learned that they wanted to do something with natural gas in eastern Europe,” he said.

At the time Parnas and associate Igor Fruman were arrested in 2019, prosecutors alleged that their political largesse was linked to an effort backed by at least one Ukrainian official to oust the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine at the time, Marie Yovanovitch. However, that allegation was dropped from a later version of the charges and prosecutors have not raised the issue in front of the jury.

Bondy tried to use Ahearn’s testimony to stress that Parnas was not an expert in campaign finance law, but the result was a mixed bag for the defense. The defense lawyer sought to contrast his client with Ahearn, who told jurors that he had a master’s degree in elections and campaign management from Fordham and took a course there in campaign finance.

“Did you ever see [Parnas] reading a book about election law or campaign finance?” Bondy asked.

“Ah, no,” Ahearn replied.

“You don’t recall having any discussion with him about the subject, do you?” the defense lawyer inquired.

“I don’t,” Ahearn said.

Later, Ahearn said he thought anyone throwing around the kind of money Parnas was would have known the rules.

“It’s my understanding that if you’re going to be writing large checks, you generally would have an idea of what the law is,” he said.

While Bondy focused on some complex aspects of campaign finance law, like the donation rules for joint fundraising committees and attribution of donations from partnerships, prosecutor Nicholas Roos called the foreign-money and straw-donation provisions at issue in the case “relatively basic.”

And although the defense has painted Parnas as naive, Roos got Ahearn to say that Parnas actually warned him against taking donations from another man who Parnas said was a front for a foreign oligarch.

Ahearn testified under an immunity order that prosecutors had arranged. Just before the jury was brought in, the fundraiser and political operative said he would potentially invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination if questioned about his dealings with Parnas. U.S. District Court Judge Paul Oetken granted Ahearn immunity, meaning his testimony cannot be used against him in any future criminal proceedings.

“Because of where we are and the accusations being made, I thought immunity was a good idea,” said Ahearn, who has not been charged with a crime.

Ahearn’s current status with America First Action is unclear, but the group said in a statement that it began winding down earlier this year.

Ahearn may end up being the only defense witness in the case, with closing arguments likely to take place Thursday morning.

Bondy said Parnas was still considering whether to take the stand in his own behalf. That could be a risky maneuver since Oetken has ruled that prosecutors would be able to question him about a range of alleged misconduct not the subject of the current trial. That includes an alleged fraud scheme and his efforts, along with Giuliani, to get Ukrainian officials to announce an investigation that would be damaging to Joe Biden, who was considered a serious political rival to President Donald Trump at the time.

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