Trump, Giuliani loom large over ex-pal Lev Parnas’ NYC federal trial starting this week

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Lev Parnas speaks to the media in front of the Thurgood Marshall United States Court House in New York on Feb. 3, 2020. - John Lamparski/SOPA Images/Zuma Press/TNS

NEW YORK — Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani are not on trial, but their names will likely feature prominently in Manhattan Federal Court as their former associate Lev Parnas faces a jury of his peers beginning Tuesday.

Parnas, a Soviet-born businessman and onetime Republican fundraiser, is charged with orchestrating two complex campaign finance schemes, one of which overlapped with Trump and Giuliani’s 2019 quest to find political dirt on then-presidential candidate Joe Biden in Ukraine.

The Parnas trial is expected to include so many references to Trump and Giuliani that Judge Paul Oetken said last week that he will quiz prospective jurors on their political beliefs to weed out any candidates with strong views about the divisive ex-president and former New York City mayor.

Joseph Bondy, Parnas’ lawyer, launched an unusual publicity tour roughly two years ago portraying his client as a whistleblower being prevented from telling the truth about corruption in the Trump administration.

Prosecutors, meanwhile, are likely to portray him as a run of the mill fraudster who shared photos with Trump and Giuliani to make himself look like a bigshot.

Jury selection is set to start Tuesday morning.

Prosecutors will then present their convoluted case against Parnas and his co-defendant Andrey Kukushkin, both of whom have pleaded not guilty.

The feds say Parnas, 49, and his former co-defendant, Igor Fruman, made unlawful political donations to two pro-Trump super PACs and former Republican Texas Rep. Pete Sessions in 2018, totaling more than $350,000.

Fruman pleaded guilty to an unrelated charge last month to avoid trial.

Around the time of the donations, Parnas and Fruman were working for Giuliani and Trump, who wanted then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch ousted because she was refusing to help unearth compromising information in Ukraine about Biden, Trump’s Democratic challenger in the 2020 presidential election.

Trump’s eventual axing of Yovanovitch in May 2019 became a key aspect of his first impeachment on charges that he tried to pressure Ukraine’s government into helping him cheat in the 2020 election. Parnas’ trial could shed more light on that shady chapter in American history, though prosecutors have vowed to avoid the Yovanovitch allegations to “streamline” the case.

The trial could also raise issues for Giuliani, who remains under investigation by the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office over scrutiny that some of his own activities in Ukraine violated foreign lobbying laws. Giuliani has denied wrongdoing and said he knew nothing about Parnas’s alleged wrongdoing.

Alongside the dizzying Ukraine saga, Parnas faces a separate set of charges that he, Fruman and another associate, David Correia, funneled cash from Russian investor Andrei Muraviev to U.S. politicians in several states in a bid to secure licenses for selling recreational marijuana.

Like Fruman, Correia will avoid trial because he pleaded guilty to charges associated with the alleged weed plot. He’s serving one year behind bars.

Kukushkin, a California businessman who will appear alongside Parnas in Manhattan Federal Court this week, is accused of serving as Muraviev’s intermediary to Parnas, Fruman and Correia.

In consultation with Kukushkin, Parnas, Fruman and Correia doled out Muraviev’s cash to American politicians without disclosing the Russian was the source — a violation of laws barring campaign contributions from foreigners, according to prosecutors.

While both Kukushkin and Parnas maintain their innocence, they have wildly different explanations for why the failed cannabis venture didn’t break the law.

Parnas’ has sought to cast doubt over prosecutors’ claim that the donations actually came from Muraviev.

Kukushkin, meanwhile, has claimed Parnas and Fruman deceived him about where the money was going.

“Parnas and Fruman only pretended to be interested in pursuing a joint cannabis venture,” Kukushkin’s attorneys wrote in court papers last month. “It was their sole intention to use Mr. Muraviev’s money to pay their debts, fund their own separate business, promote their own personal interests, support their lifestyle and sustain themselves until they could find another victim. And that is exactly what occurred.”

Though the pot portion of the trial is not expected to focus heavily on Trump or Giuliani, prosecutors will hear testimony from ex-Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt — a major Trump ally who allegedly received some of Muraviev’s money.

In discussing the breadth of evidence expected at the trial, Oetken admitted at last week’s hearing that he was stunned.

“I’ve never had a trial quite like this,” said Oetken, who has been on the bench since 2011.