A Honeysuckle Exclusive by Naomi Rosenblatt, Ronit Pinto and Jaime Lubin
THE AMERICAN JUSTICE SYSTEM: What do we really know?
“If you’re doing law in America, you’re protecting people’s rights to be free in their home, their person. You’re protecting people’s right to stand up in the face of the government. Under the Constitution I’m protecting the right to bear arms or to speak freely or have a fair trial. Everything that America means to me, really – those beautiful, amazing parts of America… Everything that’s important is protected by what we’re doing.”
– Joseph Bondy, noted criminal defense attorney and lead counsel to Lev Parnas
As Americans, we are entitled to know the truth from our elected officials. Yet in these turbulent times, after the third presidential impeachment trial in our country’s history ends without evidence or witnesses, amid scandal after scandal, and along party lines (with exception for Mitt Romney’s unprecedented break), it seems that our lawmakers are primarily the people breaking the law.
This tragic irony is not unique to the current saga. It is evident in various social, racial, and legal circumstances throughout the country. But while those incidents are sometimes caught on cell phones, they are often not highly publicized and protected by the very people tasked to prosecute them. The case illustrated here, however – that of Lev Parnas – has no shadows. There are no corners to hide behind.
REPEAT: American citizens and our national community are entitled to know the truth about the impeachment inquiry, and moreover to see the rule of law and fair administration of justice for all in the form of a fair trial with witnesses and evidence.
If this is the case, then why do we live in a country where the Senate can refuse to look at the photographic, video and documentary evidence, and block key witnesses from testifying in a matter that could well determine the future of American politics as we know it?
Here’s what happened: the truth that we all must know, from those on the front lines of justice.
QUID PRO QUO – A favor or advantage granted or expected in return for something.
We open on Lev Parnas, a faithful but chronically unsuccessful Ukrainian-American businessman and, until recently, a loyal follower of Donald Trump, who has lived in the United States since he was three years old. In late April 2018, Parnas, and his then-business partner Igor Fruman, also a Ukrainian-American businessman, who owns restaurants and a hotel in Ukraine and has ties to a number of Ukrainian government officials as well as to the Trump administration, pledged to make a $325,000 contribution to a super GOP PAC, America First, in the name of their newly formed company, Global Energy Producers. As a result, Parnas and Fruman were invited to various Republican dinners and fundraising events, eventually forming a close association with Rudy Giuliani and key figures in the Trump administration.
In the Summer of 2019, there was an increasing awareness of the President’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani having been involved in shadow diplomacy efforts in Ukraine, involving attempts to discredit the Mueller Report and Paul Manafort’s “Black Ledger” case, and to embark on a political smear campaign of the President’s political rival Joe Biden. Lev and Igor were seen to be Rudy’s associates, acting on the ground in furtherance of these activities.
Parnas and Fruman were indicted in October 2019, not due to their alleged activities in Ukraine, but on charges of violating the Federal Election Act–basically, by conspiring to funnel foreign money into Republican campaigns in the U.S. Shortly after he was arraigned in New York, Lev decided that he wanted to comply with the subpoena Congress had issued to him before his arrest, and he began to supply documents to the House Intelligence Committee. Parnas and his legal team also embarked upon a very vocal campaign to be heard.
As Parnas provided details about his involvement in Ukraine, it became clear that the President, acting through his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, participated in a scheme to smear Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden. As part of these activities, in February and then again in May 2019, at Giuliani’s urging, Parnas conveyed a message to Ukrainian politicians —including presidents Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelensky’s top aides— that explained a simple deal: Publicly announce an anti-corruption campaign against the Bidens, or there would be no White House visits, nor attendance at the Zelensky inauguration, and American military and other aid to Ukraine would be withheld.
It was a thoroughly illegal measure as the funds were previously approved by Congress and rightly needed for Ukraine to fight against attacks from Russia. According to Parnas, Giuliani’s communications effectively boiled down to “If you don’t announce an anti-corruption investigation into the Bidens, you will get no aid, and we will ignore your requests for assistance.”
When the impeachment probe revealed this scandal, Parnas was, in the words of his attorney Joseph A. Bondy, “in a position to be the fall guy.” But when shit hits the fan, Bondy is as much a vigilante of justice as he is a litigator. Like a modern-day superhero, he took the lead on a seemingly impossible case to rescue the underdog. For Parnas did indeed have a plethora of evidence proving he’d delivered the QUID PRO QUO on behalf of Trump and Giuliani, in the form of text messages, phone records, emails and more. The businessman with the megawatt smile was likable, trusting, loyal to the Trump administration to a fault – and relentlessly forthcoming upon realizing how the men he’d idolized had set him up.
“Lev has taken an enormous leap of faith for himself,” Bondy says. “He’s not faint of heart. He’s exceptional in what he’s doing… There has never been a thing he said to us that was untrue.”
Master detective work and a commitment to truth empowered Bondy and his co-counsel, Stephanie Schuman, to wage a high-stakes fight not only to protect Parnas, but to deliver his powerful testimony where it would make a difference. Though they were continually stymied by the Southern District of New York (SDNY, the most active federal court in the U.S.), who refused to simply release Lev’s materials to the House of Representatives prior to the impeachment trial, Bondy and Schuman embarked on a public campaign to get justice by any means necessary. The past few months have seen viral Twitter trends featuring the hashtags #LetLevSpeak and #LevRemembers, video and photo montages showing Parnas with Trump and top Republicans implicated in the Ukraine scandal (all of whom have denied knowing him), and explosive interviews, most notably with Rachel Maddow on MSNBC and Anderson Cooper on CNN.
On January 13, 2020, Bondy was able to release the contents of Parnas’s iPhone to the House, where summaries of the assets – AKA incontrovertible proof of the QUID PRO QUO – are being introduced as evidence. Bondy and Schuman even traveled to Washington, D.C. on January 29 to attend the Senate trial, with Parnas joining them in a march for truth to the Capitol. Notwithstanding these efforts, the Senate ultimately refused to conduct a fair trial with evidence or witnesses, thereby excluding Parnas.
Uncaped crusader that he is, Bondy gave Honeysuckle exclusive statements on his experience with Parnas, the significance the case holds for the American public, and why we must put ourselves on the line for what’s right.
“When I first agreed to represent Lev,” Bondy said, “I [had] no idea [the case would blow] up like this. I had no idea it would become such an enormous and high profile matter. It’s also been so litigious, and in many ways so acidic. Because in the beginning I thought I’d just have a client who’d decided to tell the truth, talk about people and the president and Mr. Giuliani and talk to federal prosecutors, and they’d listen. And that we would be able to get all of these materials they seized from him quickly out and turn them over to the House, and then they’d be able to properly evaluate him as a witness.”
According to Bondy, he “knew [Parnas] would be a great witness.” What he didn’t anticipate was that the federal prosecutors at the SDNY would not only close their minds to Lev’s testimony, but would take every opportunity to actively block his words from reaching public record.
“They’ve been slow with providing us certain discovery materials, and that’s been an issue,” Bondy reported. “It’s been taking a very long time for us to get those things back and there’s no straight story about why.” For example, the House Intelligence Committee recently released a document that was a page from a pad at the Vienna Ritz Carlton containing handwritten notes from Parnas, taken while staying at the hotel in Vienna, which outlined the aims of the quid pro quo to Zelensky. This document, seized with other materials from Parnas’s home on October 9, 2019, had been requested to be produced in discovery by Bondy and Schuman since shortly after Lev’s initial appearance in the Southern District of New York on October 23, and had taken months to release.
It’s difficult to evaluate someone as a witness without specific documentary evidence, Bondy explained. But he’s argued that while the GOP is trying to discredit Parnas by saying he’s under indictment and therefore can’t be believed notwithstanding the evidence, “I know that the Justice Department ever day relies upon people with far worse criminal records than Lev to secure indictments and convictions.”
In a typical legal case, it is only fair that both sides have access to all materials in discovery – evidence that ensures both prosecution and defense have all the facts so neither begins with a distinct advantage over the other. Throughout their campaigns in the Parnas case, Bondy and Schuman have reiterated that the SDNY’s tactics prevented them from producing to Congress the records that would prove beyond a doubt that Lev was telling the truth. This proof could well have qualified Parnas to testify before the House Intelligence Committee, but was not delivered in time. And yet by some miracle, Parnas’s memory of the incidents has been shown to line up precisely with the facts that have come out.
The next possible step? “Call the witnesses, see the evidence, and have a proper trial,” Bondy urged. He asserted that if top Republicans like Lindsey Graham, Mitch McConnell, Rick Scott, et al refuse to believe Parnas is telling the truth, they are obligated to evaluate him as a witness. “In the practice of law… they teach you that the best engine for truth is cross-examination. [If] you don’t think he’s telling the truth, what better way to show America than to put him under oath and out him as a liar? Cross-examine him and let the judge determine if we should dismiss his testimony.” Bondy added that historically in political situations, including in President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment, “people who voted with their conscience” and “people who took a moral stance” over party loyalty destroyed their political careers. So it is not surprising to him that Graham, McConnell, and other avowed Trump loyalists turn a blind eye to the truth.
“I’m used to being the person representing the pariah,” Bondy noted. But this case in particular resonated with him and Schuman. “If it’s not us who do this [and fight for the truth], who will? And if it’s not now, when will it be?” He spoke about his gratitude to be working with Schuman, whom he credits for her courage, hard work and tenacity, saying “[She] has never let me down the whole time we’ve known each other.” Bondy also acknowledged that he’s formed a strong “trust bond” with Parnas, admitting that they share similar perspectives on much of life.
Despite the difficulties, Bondy emphasized, “I have no doubt that we’re on the right side of history.”
Upon Honeysuckle’s question of whether Parnas’s information was incriminating evidence of Trump or would merely prove that the President had lied about their connection, Bondy confirmed swiftly, “Oh, Lev delivered quid pro quos that the president denies exist.” He reiterated again that Parnas stated outright to Petro Poroshenko that if the Ukrainian president did not announce an anti-corruption investigation into the Bidens, he would not be able to visit the White House. “These countries really depend upon showings of support from the United States, so [denying] him a White House visit was a big deal,” Bondy commented.
From Parnas’s recollections, it was Bondy’s belief that John Bolton got fired—or resigned, as Bolton submits—for refusing to deliver a quid pro quo. This theory has been greatly confirmed by Bolton’s own account of events in his memoir The Room Where It Happened, released during the impeachment trial, many of his statements corroborating Parnas’s. And according to Parnas, on May 12, 2019, he approached President Zelensky’s top aide Serhiy Shefir with the message that the Ukrainian president must announce an anticorruption campaign into the Bidens or there would be no White House visits, no American presence at Zelensky’s inauguration, and no aid of any kind including humanitarian, Javelin missile, or military aid.
Bondy told Honeysuckle that after that conversation, Shefir blocked Parnas on Whatsapp and Parnas reported to Giuliani that Zelensky would not do as requested. Giuliani responded, “Well, they’ll see,” and shortly thereafter Vice President Mike Pence announced he would not be attending the inauguration. Then-Secretary of Energy Rick Perry attended instead.
“All of them, they all knew,” Bondy repeated as he summed up the situation. “We have all of these pictures with all of these people in these really pivotal times and all of these text messages and what’s happening as proof to confirm that these things occurred. And there are discussions that corroborate everything that Lev has said… [But] when he was saying these things earlier, he didn’t have those records. He just knew it was the truth.”
Parnas’s role in the case has caused a fascinating domino effect. Within hours of Lev agreeing to comply with his House Intelligence subpoena, Bondy related, United States Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland remembered that there had been a quid pro quo. At that same moment, Trump recalled that there had been a second phone call with President Zelensky that spring – “a call that the President was aware Lev knew about,” Bondy stated. “So with Lev coming forward [we] watched the narrative change… That was because of Lev. The Washington Post reviewed him as the most distinguished man of the week last week and said that he’s got more spine than John Bolton. [Big] or small, these cases are opportunities to ensure that we have a better country, a better community, and a better tomorrow. And also [to] restate the values that we have that are so important today.”
At the end of the day, in Bondy’s view, it all boils down to justice. “Pursue justice,” he told Honeysuckle, his message to the wider world of the social media sphere every day and, it seems, a personal motto. “Call the witnesses, cross-examine. Know the truth… What kind of trial do you have if you don’t have a witness? Just a mime show, a silent puppet show.”
For the record, Bondy said, he’s not asking that everyone take Parnas at face value, but that they give him the fairest chance to prove himself. Cross-examination would reveal if he was lying or telling the truth – but as so far the evidence has shown Parnas to be truthful, is it any wonder that those who decry him in public refuse to confront him fairly?
Though we did not have the Senate trial for impeachment that we deserved, Bondy and Schuman and their team of young digital strategists and law students have done and continue to do an amazing job bringing Parnas’s words to the court of public opinion. Hope still remains, with history still to be written.
“Show people the truth,” Bondy concluded. “I think that America deserves that— in fact, our world deserves that.”
“Pursue justice” may be a transcendent concept, but with Bondy and his team working to bring it into our daily lives through incredible cases like that of Lev Parnas, we may just be able to bring some goodness back down to Earth.