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 jurors that Mr. Parnas had made a $325,000 donation to a pro-Trump super PAC, America First Action, in the name of a company he was starting. In reality, she added, the money had not come from the company, Global Energy Producers, but from a loan that Mr. Fruman had obtained.
Mr. Parnas was also part of a conspiracy to make political contributions, including at least one to a state candidate in Nevada, where he hoped to operate a cannabis business along with Mr. Kukushkin, using money from a Russian tycoon named Andrey Muraviev, prosecutors said.
The idea, Ms. Flodr said, was to “grease the wheel” in an effort to gain influence among political figures.
“Their crimes were blatant,” she told jurors. “These men shoveled thousands and thousands of dollars of foreign money” into American politics.
Soon after Ms. Flodr spoke, Mr. Bondy presented the jurors with a counternarrative.
Mr. Parnas, he said, was a “motivated” businessman, who began donating money to political causes in 2016 after becoming interested in Republican candidates and ideas. Before long, Mr. Bondy said, those donations drew attention.
Mr. Fruman, an acquaintance from the Soviet émigré community in Boca Raton, Fla., wanted to use Mr. Parnas’s political connections to help with Global Energy Producers, Mr. Bondy said.
In 2018, Mr. Parnas attended a 2018 gathering at Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s club in Florida, Mr. Bondy said. The following month Mr. Parnas was part of a similar gathering at the Trump International Hotel that included Mr. Trump and Donald Trump Jr., he said.
At one point, Mr. Bondy said, his client agreed to make a $1 million donation that would allow him to attend Republican events as a “V.I.P.” and have access to “high-end donors” with knowledge of the energy industry.
At the same time, Mr. Parnas, who believed that legalization of marijuana should be part of the Republican platform, wanted to use his newfound political connections to “take marijuana as an issue into the belly of the G.O.P.,” Mr. Bondy said.
Mr. Parnas had a longstanding interest in marijuana, Mr. Bondy said, adding that his client had met with Mr. Kukushkin in the summer of 2018 to talk about a cannabis business that was to also involve Mr. Muraviev, the Russian tycoon.
Eventually, Mr. Parnas concluded that Mr. Kukushkin would not be a good business partner, Mr. Bondy said.
Mr. Kukushkin’s lawyer, Gerald B. Lefcourt, agreed with Mr. Bondy that Mr. Muraviev’s money had not gone to political donations.
Instead, he said, Mr. Parnas and his associates had stolen from Mr. Muraviev, who was working with Mr. Kukushkin to start a lawful cannabis cultivation business.
Mr. Fruman had offered to use his connections with lawyers and lobbyists to cut through the red tape involved in such a venture, Mr. Lefcourt said. He added that Mr. Parnas, Mr. Fruman and Mr. Correia appeared to believe Mr. Kukushkin was someone they could manipulate while getting close to Mr. Muraviev — and to his money.
“They thought of Mr. Kukushkin as a rube,” Mr. Lefcourt said. “Unsophisticated.”