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Trial of Former Ukrainian PM Winds Down in San Francisco - 2004-05-27

Lawyers were making final arguments Thursday in the San Francisco trial of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko. The former official is charged with money laundering, and is accused of accepting bribes in exchange for government contracts during his time as prime minister.

In their closing arguments Wednesday, prosecutors said that Mr. Lazarenko used his office to get rich through illegal business schemes, directing more than $100 million to U.S. banks, mostly in San Francisco. He is charged with money laundering, wire fraud and extortion.

Defense lawyers, who continued their final arguments Thursday, denied that their client accepted money for government favors. They say the former official should be judged by the lax standards in place in Ukraine in the 1990s, after communism collapsed.

Attorney Dan Horowitz says his client's business activities were honest and open, and well known to Ukrainian officials. He says others in government had similar business dealings.

"Every penny earned by Mr. Lazarenko came from buying or selling wheat, gasoline products," he said. "He gave value, he got value, he made money."

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma named Mr. Lazarenko prime minister in 1996, and removed him from the post the following year. The former official requested political asylum in the United States, where he was arrested in early 1999, after Mr. Kuchma accused him of embezzlement. Mr. Lazarenko says he was targeted for political reasons.

Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Martin Jenkins dismissed 24 of the 53 counts against the former prime minister, citing a lack of evidence that Ukrainian and U.S. laws had been broken. Mr. Lazarenko initially faced more than 20 years in prison, if convicted on all charges. Now, defense lawyers say, he would face less than five years.

He has already been convicted in absentia of money laundering by a court in Switzerland.

Following closing defense arguments, and a prosecution rebuttal, the San Francisco case will go to the jury.