NEW YORK — When Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman were arrested in 2019 boarding a plane with one-way tickets to Europe, prosecutors claimed the pair had made donations to American politicians to advance the interests of Ukrainian officials.
At the time, Parnas and Fruman were working with Rudy Giuliani to dig up dirt in Ukraine on then-candidate Joe Biden to aid the reelection campaign of President Donald Trump, who faced impeachment proceedings over his dealings in Ukraine.
But as Parnas’ trial kicks off in New York, the government’s case has almost nothing to do with Ukraine and instead focuses on political contributions allegedly intended to help launch a cannabis business. Allegations that Parnas — once seen as a potential witness in Trump’s 2020 impeachment — worked on behalf of Ukraine and sought removal of the U.S. ambassador have been quietly dropped. And at a hearing last week, prosecutor Hagan Scotten said Trump and Giuliani would be little more than peripheral figures.
“One reasonable theory is that the facts at the time allowed for some sensationalism around the charges,” said Ryan Fayhee, a former Justice Department national security prosecutor who is now a partner at Hughes Hubbard & Reed in Washington. But it also isn’t unusual for prosecutors to “streamline an indictment” to “focus on areas that are likely to ensure a fairly clean narrative,” Fayhee said.
During Trump’s first impeachment proceeding, evidence emerged that Yuriy Lutsenko, Ukraine’s former chief prosecutor, asked Parnas to seek the removal of the U.S. ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch, and that Parnas did so. Parnas and Fruman had refused to testify before Congress.
Prosecutors have never publicly explained why they removed the Ukraine allegations, saying only in a court filing last year that they were streamlining “certain factual allegations” in the case. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office declined to elaborate.
During the trial, the jury will be shown photos of Parnas and Fruman with Giuliani and Trump, though prosecutors said that will be intended as evidence that the men were trying to cultivate their image as influential businessmen with powerful connections.
Claims related to the pot business were always part of the case, but they are now taking center stage after prosecutors filed a new version of the charges in August.
Parnas and three others were accused of using funds from a Russian investor to make campaign donations to local politicians in several states. The men missed the deadline to apply for licenses and their pot venture never got off the ground. Foreign funds are prohibited in U.S. election campaigns.
Fruman and another defendant, David Correia, have already pleaded guilty.