Giuliani associates charged with funneling foreign cash to pro-Trump group
WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Two foreign-born Florida businessmen who have helped President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani investigate political rival Joe Biden were arrested in a scheme to illegally funnel Russian money to a pro-Trump election committee and other U.S. political candidates, prosecutors said on Thursday.
The arrest of Ukraine-born Lev Parnas and Belarus-born Igor Fruman at an airport outside Washington carrying one-way tickets to Vienna was the latest dramatic development in a political saga that threatens Trump's presidency.
Prosecutors said Parnas and Fruman conspired to unlawfully contribute foreign money including at least $1 million from an unidentified Russian businessman to candidates for federal and state offices to buy influence. The two men in May 2018 donated $325,000 to a pro-Trump political action committee called America First Action, and the donation was falsely reported as coming from a purported natural gas company, according to the indictment.
A fast-moving Democratic-led House of Representatives impeachment inquiry is centered on the Republican president's request in a July phone call for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Biden, the former vice president and a top contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
Giuliani has said Parnas and Fruman helped his efforts in Ukraine to investigate Biden and Biden's son Hunter. The younger Biden had served as a director of a Ukrainian energy company.
The two men were each charged by federal prosecutors in New York with two counts of conspiracy, one count of false statements and one of falsification of business records. U.S. law prohibits foreign donations in American elections.
"Protecting the integrity of our elections, and protecting our elections from unlawful foreign influence, are core functions of our campaign finance laws," U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman told reporters in New York. "And as this office has made clear, we will not hesitate to investigate and prosecute those who engage in criminal conduct that draws into question the integrity of our political process"
Berman served on Trump's transition team after Trump was elected president to prepare for taking office in January 2017.
The indictment said Parnas and Fruman falsely claimed the company, called Global Energy Producers or GEP, which was making the political donations, was "a real business enterprise" and that "its major purpose is energy trading, not political activity." In fact, the company had no real business, the indictment added.
The two were arrested at Dulles airport in Virginia on Wednesday night, prosecutors said.
John Dowd, the lawyer for Parnas and Fruman, declined to comment on the charges. Dowd previously represented Trump in former Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation that detailed Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign to boost Trump's candidacy.
Parnas and Fruman made their initial court appearance in Alexandria, Virginia, with another court date set for next Thursday. They were being represented in the court appearance by lawyers for Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who is serving prison time after being convicted last year in Mueller's investigation.
Giuliani did not immediately return a request for comment. Last week, he told Reuters: "Parnas and Igor helped me on certain things. They helped me with logistics. They know the Ukraine, they speak Russian. They helped me locate people in a few cases."
Jay Sekulow, a lawyer for the president, told Reuters that "neither the president nor the campaign was aware of their scheme," referring to the defendants.
Trump has denied wrongdoing and has described the impeachment probe as a partisan smear.
Both men were expected to figure in the House impeachment drive and had been asked to produce documents and give testimony. Parnas had been scheduled to take part in a deposition with House lawmakers on Thursday, with Fruman scheduled on Friday. Dowd had called the lawmakers' demands "unreasonable." House Democrats on Thursday issued subpoenas for the men to hand over the documents and testify at a later date
According to the indictment, Parnas also sought the help of a U.S. congressman - identified by a person familiar with the matter as Republican Pete Sessions - to get the Trump administration to remove the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. Trump eventually did remove Yovanovitch and called her "bad news" in his July 25 call with Zelenskiy.
Giuliani told Reuters last week he had provided information to both Trump and the State Department about Yovanovitch, who he suggested was biased against Trump. Yovanovitch is scheduled to give testimony in the House impeachment inquiry.
Sessions lost his House seat from Texas last year to a Democrat. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Prosecutors said Parnas, Fruman and others also conspired to funnel donations to candidates in Nevada, New York and other states to benefit a planned marijuana business funded by an unnamed foreign businessman. The business never came to fruition, according to the indictment.
Two other people were charged in the indictment: David Correia, a U.S. businessman, and Andrey Kukushkin, a Ukrainian-born U.S. businessman involved in several marijuana-related businesses in California.
Photos from Parnas' social media accounts show him meeting on various occasions with Trump, his son Donald Trump Jr., Sessions and Republican congressman Kevin Brady and former congressman Carlos Curbelo.
In an interview last month, Parnas told Reuters that the FBI was investigating him but that he did not know why, and that he did nothing wrong. "I don't know what the FBI wants. I'm not going to comment, what they are doing. What they did."
"I don't think we know too much" about the investigation, Parnas said, but added that it had to be political. "When you have the heads of the Democratic Party not liking you, it's very easy to get the FBI involved."
Parnas said any violations of U.S. Federal Election Commission rules were unwitting and a "clerical thing" because he was not an experienced political donor. Parnas said he was not trying to hide the source of the $325,000 donation.
Kelly Sadler, a spokeswoman for America First Action Political Action Committee, said the organization takes its legal obligations seriously and scrupulously complies with the law, adding that any suggestion otherwise is false.
"In May 2018, America First Action received a $325,000 contribution and donor form from Global Energy Producers. In July 2018, a complaint was filed with the Federal Election Commission concerning this contribution."
Sadler added that there was separate litigation in Florida that concerns those funds.
"Accordingly, America First Action placed that contribution in a segregated bank account, it has not been used ... for any purpose and the funds will remain in this segregated account until these matters are resolved."
Federal records show Parnas has donated a total of $25,200 to Republican candidates and political groups since the 2016 presidential election, including $2,700 to Sessions and $2,700 to House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy. Fruman has donated $44,201 over that period to Republicans, including Sessions, the Republican National Committee and Trump's presidential campaign.
The top Senate Democrat, Chuck Schumer, called the developments regarding Giuliani's associates "very troubling."
"Giuliani's been involved up to his neck in this entire mess. He has an obligation to testify under oath so he can be asked questions and so this can come to light," Schumer told reporters.
(Reporting by Aram Roston, Brendan Pierson and Karen Freifeld; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Andy Sullivan, Jan Wolfe, Sarah N. Lynch, Ginger Gibson, David Morgan and Patricia Zengerle; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Frances Kerry and Peter Cooney)
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