From pot to impeachment: The high-wire legal act from Lev Parnas' attorney
Posted January 20, 2020 6:52 p.m. EST
CNN — On New Year's Eve, attorney Joseph A. Bondy hopped on a subway train headed toward the US attorney's office in lower Manhattan to pick up a disk loaded with Lev Parnas' cell phone contents. It was the first piece of evidence prosecutors had released to him since his client was arrested in October.
The clock was ticking.
House Democrats had voted to impeach President Donald Trump, and Bondy watched as witness upon witness testified while Parnas -- an associate of Rudy Giuliani in his Ukraine political efforts -- sat on the sidelines.
As Bondy spent a week struggling to access the device, which he anticipated was filled with relevant text messages and documents, he did what he could to make Parnas part of the conversation. Bondy began tweeting daily photo montages of Parnas with Giuliani, GOP lawmakers, Trump and his family members -- with the hashtag #LetLevSpeak and #LevRemembers. In a tweet last week, he added music to the montage -- a snippet of MC Hammer's "You Can't Touch This."
"I couldn't get him in the door at the (House Permanent Subcommittee on Intelligence) without these materials, I started to just raise public awareness. I thought the best friend that we have is the public -- and in every case I feel that the best friend you have is the public," Bondy told CNN.
The initial strategy paid off. About 48 hours after Bondy delivered the files to Congress, House investigators released a trove of materials from Parnas, including a letter Giuliani sent to Ukraine's President-elect requesting a meeting with the "knowledge and consent" of the US President. There were also text messages suggesting the US ambassador who Giuliani was trying to remove was under surveillance. In a blitz of interviews which began that night, he sat down with CNN and MSNBC.
"The truth is out now, thank God," Parnas told Anderson Cooper in an interview last week. "I thought they were going to shut me up and make me look like the scapegoat and try to blame me for stuff I haven't done."
The documents were released two days before articles of impeachment were delivered to the US Senate. They jolted a trial that had largely been mapped out for weeks and interjected new allegations that Democrats have used to bolster their calls for witnesses with Parnas now potentially one of them.
The legal strategy is risky and has thrust Parnas, who is facing criminal charges, into the spotlight with few legal protections or guarantees. He's been indicted on four federal crimes relating to campaign finance laws. He has pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors have expressed no interest in signing up Parnas with a cooperation deal, have said additional charges against him are likely and tried to revoke his bail. Bondy believes prosecutors have purposefully delayed providing him evidence in order to prevent Parnas from being of value to Congress.
A spokesman for the US attorney's office for the Southern District of New York declined to comment.
"When I started this case, Lev was a figure on 'Saturday Night Live.' He was the gangster with unpaid debts. Now he's become perhaps the most pivotal witness that could be offered in a trial," Bondy says.
Bondy, who cut his teeth defending violent criminals including Peter Gotti, the brother of Gambino crime family boss John Gotti Jr., acknowledges Parnas' strategy is a legal high-wire act but, he says, he has faith in the truth.
"The risks are enormous and the only way that this works is by him being truthful and wanting to be helpful," says Bondy. His objective is that "I am able to say to my judge at the end of this day, no matter what happens, he tried very hard and what he did that was so helpful transcends him."
It's not Bondy's first time in the spotlight. Early in his career he represented a notorious drug dealer known as El Feo along with defendants linked to organized crime whose cases splashed across the New York tabloids.
"What I think they're trying to do is essentially alternative route cooperation, the alternative route being Congress," said Elie Hoenig, a former federal prosecutor and CNN legal analyst. He predicts Parnas will plead guilty to some charges and aim to win over the judge at sentencing.
"I think ultimately the strategy is you get in front of the judge at sentencing (and say) we tried to cooperate with SDNY but my client did cooperate with something perhaps more important, Congress -- the House and Senate -- on the most important matters and he should get some sentencing credit for it," said Hoenig, who squared off against Bondy in the Gotti case.
"It's a variant of what Michael Cohen tried to do. It didn't work out great for Cohen," added Hoenig.
Michael Cohen, Trump's former personal attorney, pleaded guilty to nine criminal charges, but didn't sign a cooperation deal with SDNY prosecutors because he wouldn't admit or reveal additional crimes. Cohen cooperated with former special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and testified before multiple congressional committees. He received some credit from the judge but was still sentenced to three years in prison.
Bondy brushes off those comparisons, saying he's won lower sentences for multiple clients over the years. "For those who know me they know that my knowledge and interest in the sentencing guidelines runs deep," he said.
Hoenig added that even if Parnas didn't get into the substance of the charges in his televised interviews, he gave prosecutors something to work with at trial, such as establishing the relationships that Parnas had with Giuliani, people in the Ukraine and Trump.
"It does look like he's putting a heck of a lot of chips on this idea of getting credit for cooperating with Congress," Hoenig said, adding that Bondy is "a good advocate. He knows what he's doing. He's a smart guy."
From the Mafia to cannabis
Bondy, 52, grew up on Manhattan's east side, the son of a school teacher and chemical engineer.
He says his mother was the driving force behind him becoming a lawyer. When she pressed him about what he wanted to do with his life, he says he grew irritated and blurted out that he wanted to be a Mafia lawyer.
"Without skipping a beat she said the best criminal defense lawyers went to Brooklyn Law School," Bondy recalls. Bondy applied. The rest is history.
Bondy rents a small corner office in a suite from Gerald Lefcourt, a well-known criminal defense lawyer, but he sits facing the door not the view of Midtown.(Lefcourt represents one of the men who is a co-defendant in Parnas' case.)
He says he's been inspired by his faith and the idea of sticking up for the underdog, sometimes against all odds.
"I wanted to be a people's lawyer. I never wanted to represent big business. I wanted to give a voice to people who didn't have one," said Bondy, beginning to cry.
One inspiration comes from "To Kill a Mockingbird" and Atticus Finch, a white lawyer who represents an African American man accused of rape in the South. "He's defending poor Tom Robinson and he's saving him hopefully and fighting against this white patrician culture," says Bondy. But when Finch leaves the courtroom after his client is convicted, Bondy says, he learned another lesson.
"For all of the beautiful things you see in Atticus, I don't ever want to walk away from someone like that," Bondy said.
Bondy's career is dotted with defendants many might shy away from representing.
Early in his career, Bondy represented Jose Reyes, a New York drug dealer confined to a wheelchair known as El Feo, who was convicted of murdering seven men and running a narcotics organization. Bondy, who was still cutting his teeth as an attorney, says Reyes is the first client he had to tell that they lost the appeal and would spend the rest of his life in prison.
That led to representing other clients, including Gotti, who was convicted of plotting to murder Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano. Bondy also represented Louis Eppolitto, a New York Police Department detective turned mafia hit man. Eppolitto was convicted of helping to murder eight men.
"You can represent a big pariah. If you can represent people in high profile cases and ensure their rights are protected when everyone hates them then all the rest of us are protected," Bondy says.
Before Parnas, Bondy had shifted into cannabis law -- seeing it as a way to address social justice reform.
"This whole marijuana movement is tied to criminal justice reform, which is tied to social justice reform. You're talking about cannabis. You're talking about mandatory minimum sentencing. You're talking about bail, you're talking about criminal convictions," Bondy explains. He is one of several lawyers who brought a 2018 lawsuit against the Department of Justice to remove marijuana as a controlled substance. The case is ongoing.
Bondy launched a weekly Facebook video talk show called "In the Know 420," where he hosts guests to discuss the latest in cannabis news.
It was also through his work in the area -- he's a board member of the Cannabis Cultural Association -- that Bondy began to see the benefits of social media, a tactic at the heart of his campaign with Parnas.
"I learned how to do things like use Instagram and use my Facebook feed, do a live stream. I learned the benefit of tweeting," he says.
Bondy's talk show has taken a back seat since he began representing Parnas, but he says his campaign to make Parnas more human has shifted the story. He's also won over one of his toughest critics, his daughter, who initially didn't like that her father was representing a political operative.
"What speaks to me about Lev is when people are in pain I cry for them. When people are hurt, I feel it. I can't explain it in a sense more for that," Bondy said.
Bondy began representing Parnas in late October, a few weeks after he was arrested at Dulles International Airport outside of Washington, D.C., while boarding a one-way flight to Vienna. While in jail arranging bail, Parnas learned that Trump denied knowing him.
In his jail cell, Parnas fired his lawyers, John Dowd, a lawyer who at times has represented Trump, and Kevin Downing, who represented Paul Manafort. Bondy won't go into detail about how he came to Parnas. "It's not important," he adds.
He hired Bondy and they decided to reverse Dowd's earlier legal strategy to not cooperate with Congress. Weeks later they broke from Edward MacMahon, a high-powered Washington lawyer who initially worked with Bondy.
Bondy has also clashed with prosecutors in court and behind the scenes.
In early December, prosecutors said they had seized roughly two-dozen electronic devices from Parnas and his home after he was arrested. The devices were password protected and prosecutors said they were having trouble accessing them and sent some materials to the FBI lab in Quantico, Virginia. Bondy would not provide Parnas' password.
When Bondy asked to amend Parnas' bail to allow him a few hours a day outside of his Florida home, prosecutors asked the judge to have Parnas remanded to prison. They alleged Parnas misled them repeatedly on sworn financial documents, specifically about a $1 million loan from a Ukrainian oligarch with links to Trump's lawyers.
At a court hearing, Bondy convinced the judge that the $1 million loan to Parnas' wife was not intentionally meant to mislead prosecutors.
But he was frustrated that he still didn't have what he wanted -- the contents of Parnas' devices. Prosecutors alerted him that they had accessed some of the materials, including a cell phone in late December, which Bondy picked up on New Year's Eve.
He blames prosecutors for slow-walking the materials.
"I have no doubt in my mind that they deliberately tried to thwart the flow of this evidence. I have no doubt in my mind that it was a belief that if you circle the wagons with these lawyers and then put a lid on Lev and tell him to shut up that's part of a coordinated plan to protect the President," Bondy alleges. On Monday, Bondy asked Attorney General William Barr to recuse himself from the investigation.
Parnas' legal fate is still in limbo. He faces the prospect of additional criminal charges and the Senate has not said if they will hear witnesses in the impeachment inquiry.
"I'm dealing with the hand that I've been dealt," says Bondy. "Truth and contrition go a long, long way in securing a positive outcome."