Was Lev Parnas a businessman who cared about energy independence and marijuana legalization? Or a conniver who flouted campaign finance laws?
For years, the U.S. government described Lev Parnas as a corrupt businessman who had violated campaign finance laws and tried to influence political candidates, all as part of a scheme to benefit an energy company and a cannabis venture.
But as Mr. Parnas’s trial began on Wednesday, his lawyer described his client as an altruist who wanted to help wean European countries from dependence on Russian energy and hoped to convince Republican leaders that marijuana should be legalized.
Mr. Parnas did not “willfully violate election laws,” the lawyer, Joseph A. Bondy, said during opening arguments. “He’s cloaked right now in his mantle of innocence,” he added.
Mr. Parnas, a Ukrainian American entrepreneur from Florida, and Igor Fruman, a business partner, were arrested in 2019 at Dulles International Airport, holding one-way tickets for a flight to Frankfurt.
Both were accused, along with two co-defendants, Andrey Kukushkin and David Correia, of conspiring to circumvent federal laws against foreign influence in American elections “by engaging in a scheme to funnel foreign money to candidates for federal and state office.” (Mr. Kukushkin is being tried with Mr. Parnas; Mr. Fruman and Mr. Correia have pleaded guilty to counts related to the case.)
Mr. Parnas has gained notoriety as an operative who in 2018 and 2019 helped President Donald J. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, who was overseeing efforts to dig up dirt in Ukraine on President Biden — at that time a leading Democratic presidential candidate.
As lawyers made their initial arguments on Wednesday in Federal District Court in Manhattan, jurors heard conflicting accounts of the business plans the defendants had pursued, money that had changed hands and donations that went to political causes.
A prosecutor, Aline R. Flodr, told