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Criminal Justice

He Left Russia to Cash In on Cannabis in SF. He Ended Up Sentenced to Prison with Rudy Giuliani’s Associates

Written by Chris RobertsPublished Mar. 15, 2022 • 4:44pm

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NEW YORK — Andrey Kukushkin came to San Francisco in 1993 as the teenage grandson of Holocaust survivors from Odessa, the cosmopolitan Ukrainian port city that produced Leon Trotsky. One of countless refugees from the fall of the Soviet Union to wash up on American shores, Kukushkin attended classes at San Francisco State, learned English, and worked as a tennis instructor before leaving the tight-knit expat community in 2006. He left for the hyperhustle of post-privatization Moscow, where major business deals were done by strobe light, over drinks in nightclubs.

If one was bold enough, tough enough or lucky enough, if one knew the right people and didn’t cross the wrong ones, fortunes could be made in months instead of years.

When Kukushkin returned to the Bay Area in 2014, he was nearly unrecognizable, recalled a former friend and confidante: all flashy, nightclub-chic suits and fast talk, enough money in his pocket to secure a luxury condo on Rincon Hill. He boasted about his connections to Russia’s new class of globetrotting millionaire and billionaire capitalists, bankers and tycoons, for whom he was ready and authorized to make deals—deals that, if they went right, might have made an oligarch out of Kukushkin himself.

Instead, Kukushkin ended up in tears Tuesday morning in federal court in New York City, where he was sentenced to a year and a day in prison for his role in a scheme to undermine U.S. elections and create a cannabis empire that spanned several states, including a dispensary in San Francisco and a massive cannabis farm in the Alameda County foothills. 

Tuesday’s sentencing hearing followed Kukushkin’s conviction in October for serving as a bagman in a dizzying saga involving a cement oligarch, Rudy Giuliani and a coterie of unscrupulous emigres who frequented Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate. Lev Parnas, one of the former New York mayor’s cronies caught up in the case, eventually flipped on both Giuliani and Trump and tried to testify during one of the former president’s impeachment trials.

Parnas was convicted in October along with Kukushkin in the straw donor scheme and pleaded guilty to additional fraud charges on March 10. He has not yet been sentenced. Igor Fruman, who was arrested along with Parnas in 2019 at Dulles International Airport, pleaded guilty to participating in the foreign donor scheme and was sentenced to a year in prison. A fourth associate, David Correia, pleaded guilty to separate fraud charges and also received a year’s imprisonment.

In his impeachment, Trump was acquitted by the Senate. Giuliani has never been charged with a crime.

In court Tuesday and in pre-sentencing letters to U.S. District Judge J. Paul Oetken, Kukushkin and his family members pleaded for leniency, claiming that Kukushkin was needed to care for his ailing father and for his fiance’s 80-year-old grandmother, who recently fled her home in war-ravaged Kyiv.

Oetken agreed that Kukushkin’s imprisonment would be a burden on his family, but that some punishment was appropriate. “Straw donations corrupt our system,” Oetken said.

The United States Attorney, which was seeking five years in prison for Kukushkin, did not respond to a request for comment.

Through his attorney, Gerald Lefcourt, Kukushkin declined to comment on the sentencing Tuesday. However, Lefcourt said that Kukushkin plans to appeal—and, in the meantime, he plans to continue working with other modern-day Ukrainian refugees fleeing the destruction of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion last month. This work includes filling out forms, interpreting and recommending countries in which to find refuge, Lefcourt said.

“He’s doing all kinds of things, including protesting in the street,” Lefcourt added.

Kukushkin was found guilty of funneling $1 million from Russian oligarch Andrei Muraviev to associates of presidential fixer Rudy Giuliani. Muraviev, whose name is sometimes also anglicized as “Muravyev” or “Muravyov,” is a Siberian cement magnate who later made a mint in technology and other investments, including a stint as director of Qiwi, a popular Russian financial transaction app.

He befriended Kukushkin when the pair both attended San Francisco State, where Muraviev earned a degree in finance in 1998, according to court and federal Securities Exchange Commission documents. 

It was Kukushkin’s connections to Muraviev, whom he reconnected with in Moscow, that powered his reinvention as a wheeler-dealer. 

Beginning in 2018, Giuliani’s associates—Lev Parnas, Igor Fruman and David Correia—spread Muraviev’s money around elections in Florida and Nevada. (At least once, in 2018, Parnas brought up cannabis banking to Trump while he was president, according to a secret recording Parnas later published.)

The laundered campaign contributions were a hamfisted attempt to win favor from Republican elected officials and candidates who might hold the strings to winning limited marjiuana business licenses, according to court documents. And, since the money came from Muraviev—a foreign national who is prohibited by law from funding U.S. elections—it was an illegal end-around.

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The goal of buying off elected officials, according to court documents, was to follow the lead of other success stories from the hyper-rich Russian elite. Foreign investors from China, Japan, South America and Russia have seen the reluctance of U.S. banks to handle cash from cannabis sales as a chance to make a fresh fortune in the burgeoning American marijuana industry. Among the post-Soviet success stories to successfully diversify into North American weed was Boris Jordan, a prominent banker and onetime confidante of Vladimir Putin who is now CEO of Curaleaf, one of the world’s largest cannabis companies.

But in Kukushkin’s case, it didn’t work. Though Muraviev funneled $325,000 to a pro-Trump political action committee and another $50,000 to future Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis—victories Muraviev marked in a text message asking when he’d be rewarded for his investment with business licenses—those licenses never materialized. In Nevada, Giuliani’s would-be flunkies missed a crucial deadline to apply. In other states, they just didn’t win a permit.

Meanwhile, Kukushkin and Muraviev spread around even more money, embarking on a whirlwind tour of California’s cannabis industry. 

Muraviev invested $1 million into Medithrive, a legacy San Francisco cannabis dispensary in the Mission District. When that investment soured, Kukushkin filed suit in San Francisco Superior Court to recover the money. That matter is still pending.

Muraviev and Kukushkin also partnered with another emigre from the Soviet bloc: Garib Karapetyan, whom the Sacramento Bee described as a “prominent” figure in that city’s cannabis business. The pair partnered with Karapetyan on at least two consulting businesses, according to state business filings, but their names vanished after Kukushkin’s 2019 indictment. 

Karapetyan has never been accused of any wrongdoing.

Muraviev was indicted at the same time as Kukushkin, according to federal court documents unsealed on Monday. A Russian national, he is believed to live in Moscow, well beyond the reach of American law.

Central to Kukushkin’s appeal, according to his attorney, is a claim that he simply wasn’t aware of what the Giuliani crew and Muraviev were doing. Lefcourt said that all Kukushkin wanted to do was create a marijuana empire in San Francisco and beyond.

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