Two foreign-born Florida businessmen who helped President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani investigate political rival Joe Biden have been arrested in a scheme to illegally funnel Russian money to a pro-Trump election committee and other US political candidates, prosecutors said.
- Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman were central to Rudy Giuliani’s efforts to convince Ukraine officials to investigate the Bidens
- The Florida businessmen have now been arrested on campaign finance violations
- The indictment alleges they “sought to advance their personal financial interests and the political interests of at least one Ukrainian government official”
Ukraine-born Lev Parnas and Belarus-born Igor Fruman were arrested at an airport outside Washington carrying one-way tickets to Vienna.
Prosecutors said Mr Parnas and Mr Fruman conspired to contribute foreign money, including at least $1 million from an unidentified Russian businessman, to candidates for federal and state offices to buy influence.
They donated $US325,000 ($480,000) to a pro-Trump political action committee called America First Action in May, 2018, and the money was falsely reported as coming from a purported natural gas company set up to conceal its true source, according to the indictment.
A Facebook screen shot provided by The Campaign Legal Centre shows Donald Trump Jr, Tommy Hicks Jr, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman in May 2018. (AP: The Campaign Legal Center)
A fast-moving Democratic-led House of Representatives impeachment inquiry is centred on the Republican President’s request in a July phone call for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Mr Biden, the former vice president and a top contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
Democrats have accused Mr Trump of pressuring a vulnerable foreign ally to dig up dirt on a domestic political opponent for his own political benefit.
Mr Giuliani has said Mr Parnas and Mr Fruman helped his efforts in Ukraine to investigate Mr Biden and Mr 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.
US law prohibits foreign donations in American elections.
President Donald Trump standing with Lev Parnas at the White House. Parnas posted the picture to Facebook on May 1, 2018. (The Campaign Legal Center via AP)
Mr Parnas and Mr Fruman were trying to buy political influence to help them set up recreational marijuana businesses, prosecutors said. They also said Mr Parnas played a role in a successful effort to have Mr Trump remove the US ambassador to Ukraine.
“Protecting the integrity of our elections, and protecting our elections from unlawful foreign influence, are core functions of our campaign finance laws,” US 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.”
Mr Berman served on Mr Trump’s transition team after Mr Trump was elected President to prepare for taking office in January, 2017.
The indictment said Mr Parnas and Mr 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 (local time), prosecutors said.
John Dowd, the lawyer for Mr Parnas and Mr Fruman, declined to comment on the charges. Mr Dowd previously represented Mr Trump in former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation that detailed Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential campaign to boost Mr Trump’s candidacy.
Mr Parnas and Mr 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 Mr Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who is serving prison time after being convicted last year in Mr Mueller’s investigation.
Federal Magistrate Judge Michael Nachmanoff imposed a lengthy, strict set of conditions that Mr Parnas and Mr Fruman must meet to be released including each posting $US1 million bond and being placed on GPS monitoring in home detention. The prosecution called the men a flight risk.
Mr 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, said that “neither the President nor the campaign was aware of their scheme,” referring to the defendants.
Mr Trump has denied wrongdoing and has described the impeachment probe as a partisan smear.