Politics

Meet the Soviet-born businessmen tangled in Trump’s impeachment inquiry. They live in Florida.

Two South Florida businessmen from the former Soviet Union could find themselves dragged into an impeachment inquiry targeting President Donald Trump over their political activities in Ukraine.

Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman were cited — although not by name — in a government whistleblower complaint released Thursday alleging improper behavior by the president. Parnas and Fruman helped introduce Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, into top Ukrainian political circles, according to widespread media accounts.

A July 25 telephone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky led House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to announce an impeachment inquiry earlier this week. During the call, Trump pressured his counterpart to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, sparking the whistleblower complaint and widespread public concern even from the administration’s Republican allies in Congress.

“The connections and associates which Giuliani had on President Trump’s behalf in Ukraine ... those really should be the heart of the investigative process,” said Kenneth F. McCallion, a former federal prosecutor and attorney for former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko in the United States.

Reached on his cellphone Thursday, Parnas called the impeachment inquiry a “soap opera” and defended Trump.

“[Personally], it’s a headache. It’s upsetting, being dragged into something like this,” he said.

Parnas said Ukraine’s government has access to information on alleged wrongdoing by the Bidens and U.S. officials overseas — but that the U.S. government proved indifferent to receiving it through official channels. Thanks to his friendship with Giuliani, he said, he and Fruman became the best people to get it into the Trump administration’s hands. The information could affect the 2020 election.

“I got certain information and I thought it was my duty to hand it over,” he said. He declined to comment on the details of his relationship with Giuliani, although he said the former New York City mayor was his lawyer as well as friend.

While Giuliani hoped to gather information damaging to Trump’s rivals, experts have largely dismissed claims that a conspiracy was afoot. Joe and Hunter Biden have denied wrongdoing.

Parnas’ and Fruman’s newfound political prominence, including major donations to GOP candidates, belies a history of financial troubles.

Parnas is a former stockbroker who was threatened last year with eviction from a $5,500-per-month home in Boca Raton, court records show. His company was evicted in 2015 for failing to pay rent. The Ukrainian-American businessman is also at the center of a $325,000 donation to a pro-Trump super PAC that is under scrutiny from federal regulators. Details about that contribution were revealed only when an investor sued Parnas over a loan made for an unmade film Parnas was promoting called “Anatomy of an Assassin.”

Fruman, a real estate investor who also runs a New York import-export business dealing in coffee, baby food, ketchup and dairy products, and Parnas also allegedly bragged about their alliances with Republican power brokers like Giuliani and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in order to procure a six-figure loan from an investor for a natural gas business they run. But the men struggled to pay the investor back on time, leading to a lawsuit.

Their political efforts have met with some success. A month after meeting with Giuliani, Parnas and Fruman earlier this year, Ukrainian prosecutors announced an investigation into whether officials had attempted to swing the election in favor of Hillary Clinton, according to a detailed profile of Parnas and Fruman’s activities by Buzzfeed News and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. Trump called the allegations “big” and “incredible” on Fox News.

The whistleblower complaint expressed concern that Trump is “using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.” It repeatedly mentioned the role of Giuliani in Ukraine. And in three footnotes, the whistleblower cites media reports revealing how Parnas and Fruman were instrumental. The complaint refers to the men as “two associates of Mr. Giuliani.”

Giuliani has confirmed Parnas and Fruman are his legal clients. Fruman could not be reached Thursday. Attorneys who have represented him did not respond to requests for comment. Giuliani has said his efforts in Ukraine had the full support of the president.

A Reuters reporter last week saw Giuliani and Parnas sitting at a table together at Trump’s hotel in Washington, D.C.

Parnas, Fruman and their natural-gas company, Global Energy Producers, have given more than $400,000 to Republican candidates and committees supporting them in federal elections. The vast majority of that money has gone to committees supporting Trump, but Republican Florida Sen. Rick Scott is the next biggest beneficiary. In 2018, Fruman gave $15,000 to a joint-fundraising committee backing Scott’s Senate race. They also gave $50,000 to the campaign of DeSantis, a Trump ally, in June 2018 and $35,000 combined to a committee supporting failed Republican gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam.

Together, Parnas and Fruman joined Donald Trump Jr. for breakfast in Beverly Hills last year, a deleted social media post obtained by BuzzFeed/OCCRP shows. Both men have been spotted at Trump properties, including Mar-a-Lago, according to published reports. Another photo shows Parnas at the White House with Trump earlier this year.

On the website of his current company, Fraud Guarantee, Parnas lists one of his early business ventures as “shipping the first containers of freight between the United States and the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s.” Fraud Guarantee, where he is co-founder and CEO, protects investors “from losses due to fraud,” according to the website. Parnas has been repeatedly sued over alleged unpaid debts and rents in Palm Beach County courts. (“I don’t know anybody that has only good in their business,” Parnas said Thursday. “I’ve never done anything illegal, I’ve never been charged, I’ve never been near anything like that.”)

In addition to his interests in real estate and shipping, Fruman is the president of the Ukrainian-based Otrada Luxury Group, which sells cars, jewelry, boats, food and alcohol, according to a company pamphlet. He lives in Sunny Isles Beach, public records show, which is also the location of Seafront Properties, LLC, for which he is the registered agent. He has “personal ties” to a powerful businessman in the Ukrainian port city of Odessa called “the Grey Cardinal” who is believed to associate with organized crime figures, according to OCCRP, an international consortium of investigative journalists.

THE EASTERN FRONT

On May 17, 2018, a Delaware shell company called Global Energy Producers contributed $325,000 to America First Action, a pro-Trump super PAC, according to federal campaign finance records. Parnas was described as the CEO of the firm and Fruman as the president in unrelated documents.

It was their big introduction into GOP politics and a world of international intrigue.

The next year, Parnas would prove crucial in setting up meetings between Giuliani and former Ukrainian prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko, according to the New York Times.

Giuliani was said to be primarily seeking two things: Information about how material damaging to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was publicly leaked in Ukraine. And an agreement from Ukraine’s government to investigate the involvement of Biden’s son in a Ukrainian energy company, which could hinder Biden’s campaign against Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

Thanks to Parnas, Giuliani spoke on the phone with Lutsenko and met with him for several hours in New York City in January, the Times reported. They reportedly met again in Warsaw in February.

“[Lutsenko] brought documentation, verification. It opened Giuliani’s eyes,” Parnas told reporters at Buzzfeed and OCCRP, saying the information could aid Attorney General William Barr’s inquiry into the origins of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, as well as the 2020 election.

“It’s all going to come out,” Parnas added. “Something terrible happened and we’re finally going to get to the bottom of it.”

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President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, in the East Room of the White House in July 2018. SAUL LOEB AFP/Getty Images

All told, Parnas and Fruman introduced Giuliani to three current and former Ukrainian prosecutors, according to OCCRP.

Although both men have claimed to open doors in Ukraine for Giuliani, neither is registered as a foreign agent with the U.S. Justice Department. Whether they need to is murky, in part, because of Giuliani’s unusual status as someone doing the bidding of the U.S. president while not actually an appointed official.

After the Times story in May, Giuliani canceled his planned visit to Ukraine.

He did however meet with an adviser to Ukraine’s president in Madrid in August, according to the whistleblower complaint.

The $325,000 donation to the Trump super PAC was the subject of a complaint by a nonpartisan watchdog group to the Federal Election Commission last year. The Campaign Legal Center said Global Energy Partners did not have assets required to make such a hefty donation and that the funds had in fact come from an unknown source.

“We’ve seen that these two shady characters managed to buy their way into Trump world with a $325,000 super PAC contribution and then leveraged the access the contribution afforded to push this highly dubious scheme in Ukraine,” Brendan Fischer of the Campaign Legal Center said in an interview Thursday.

More details about the source of the money have been revealed in a civil lawsuit filed in federal court.

In the lawsuit, an investor in a movie-deal-gone-bad won a judgment worth more than $500,000 plus interest against Parnas. Wire transfers unveiled in the lawsuit showed that the money had not been donated to the Trump super PAC by Global Energy Partners but by another company managed by Parnas, according to a supplemental complaint lodged by the CLC in June.

“America First Action violated the law by filing this false report, which has kept the public in the dark about the true sources of its support. Parnas, Fruman, or others who engineered this scheme also violated the law by laundering the contribution through LLCs,” the complaint stated. “But we still don’t know where the money actually came from. The FEC should find out.”

America First Action said it could not comment on “ongoing legal matters.”

“We take our legal obligations seriously and scrupulously comply with the law,” the group said in a statement.

Parnas said Thursday the money came from the sale of a Miami-area condo and that the donation was legitimate. On Thursday, the Daily Beast published a story confirming that a company linked to Fruman had sold a Bal Harbour condo for $4.1 million.

Tony Andre, a South Florida attorney helping the jilted movie investor recover the judgment, said his research has found Parnas’ finances to be opaque.

“His financial dealings seem questionable when you consider his history of non-payments of debts,” Andre said Thursday.

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President Donald Trump meets with his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, at the United Nations on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. Evan Vucci AP

Mystery men

It’s not clear how Parnas, Fruman and New York’s former mayor got to know each other.

Giuliani has been mixed into the complicated Ukrainian political scene for more than a decade. A confidential State Department cable, sent from the U.S. Embassy in Kiev back to headquarters and published by Wikileaks, described how Giuliani was seeking to help former heavyweight boxing champion Vitaliy Klitschko in his bid to enter the political ring there.

According to BuzzFeed/OCCRP, Parnas came to the United States in 1976 when he was 4.

A check of Parnas on the website BrokerCheck, operated by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), shows him associated with three companies that have been expelled from the industry’s self-regulating body. Parnas worked in the securities business since 1994, sometimes using the name Larry Parnell, but has not been a registered broker since 2009, when the North Miami Beach company he worked for, Basis Financial, LLC, was expelled.

In a settlement with the body, Basis Financial’s owners admitted to a range of misrepresentations and misconduct and FINRA determined the company failed to establish anti-money-laundering policies.

In 2003, another Parnas-associated company, Program Trading Corp., in Boca Raton, was expelled from FINRA. Parnas had a stake of 25-to-50 percent in the company, through his Florida company Aaron Investment Group, according to documents. FINRA expelled the company after it refused to pay fines and settle with the National Association of Securities Dealers, which accused Program Trading of malfeasance.

Parnas was also a broker in the mid 1990s with Euro-Atlantic Securities, Inc. That firm was at the center of a stock fraud prosecution in New York in 2001 involving several alleged organized crime figures. Parnas had left the company by the time indictments were brought for stock-price manipulation.

He has never been personally charged.

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Igor Fruman with President Donald Trump. Fruman is referenced — but not by name — in the whistleblower complaint pertaining to Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president.

Born in Belarus, Fruman spent years in Ukraine before migrating to Miami where, in 2005, he married Yelyzaveta Naumova, also a Ukrainian national. Naumova filed for divorce in 2017, records show.

Fruman ran an import/export business and owned a boutique hotel in Odessa, Ukraine, according to BuzzFeed/OCCRP. A milk canning plant he invested in went bankrupt after going nearly $25 million in debt, the news organizations reported.

In March, Russian-born businessman Felix Vulis sued Fruman and Parnas after Global Energy Producers failed to pay back a $100,000 loan from Vulis last September. The two parties agreed to a settlement for an undisclosed amount last month.

In order to procure the loan, Fruman and his associates at GEP bragged about his connections to Giuliani, the complaint said. In March of 2018, Fruman and Parnas attended a Trump donor meeting at Mar-a-Lago as a kickoff event for Trump’s 2020 campaign, according to OCCRP. Their biggest donation came two months later.

Paperwork for the $325,000 contribution to the Trump super PAC lists a home in Boca Raton as an address for Global Energy Partners. Parnas confirmed it was his residence.

Reached Thursday, Victor Imber, the man who owns that home, said “Who is Lev Parnas?” and hung up the phone.

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Ukrainian President Zelensky’s last name.

Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley and Miami Herald researcher Monika Leal contributed to this report.
Nicholas Nehamas is an investigative reporter at the Miami Herald, where he was part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team that broke the Panama Papers in 2016. He and his Herald colleagues were also named Pulitzer finalists in 2019 for the series “Dirty Gold, Clean Cash.” He joined the Herald in 2014.
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Investigative reporter Kevin G. Hall shared the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for the Panama Papers. He was a 2010 Pulitzer finalist for reporting on the U.S. financial crisis and won of the 2004 Sigma Delta Chi for best foreign correspondence for his series on modern-day slavery in Brazil. He is past president of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.
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