WASHINGTON — Two Florida businessmen tied to President Trump’s lawyer and the Ukraine investigation were charged Thursday with federal campaign finance violations. The charges relate to a $325,000 donation to a group supporting Trump’s reelection.
Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, associates of Rudy Giuliani, were arrested Wednesday night trying to flee the country with one-way tickets at Dulles International Airport in Virginia, according to Geoffrey Berman, the US attorney in Manhattan. No destination was disclosed.
Parnas and Fruman were arrested on a four-count indictment that includes charges of conspiracy, making false statements to the Federal Election Commission and falsification of records. The men had key roles in Giuliani’s efforts to launch a Ukrainian corruption investigation against Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
The indictments mark the first criminal charges related to the Ukraine controversy. While they do not suggest wrongdoing by the president, they are likely to add fuel to the House impeachment inquiry, raising additional questions about whether those close to Trump and Giuliani sought to use their influence to affect US foreign policy decisions.
Trump has dismissed the impeachment inquiry as baseless and politically motivated.
Records show that Parnas and Fruman used wire transfers from a corporate entity they controlled to make the $325,000 donation to the America First Action committee in 2018. But wire transfer records that became public through a lawsuit show that the corporate entity reported as making the transaction was not the true source of the money.
Prosecutors also allege that Parnas urged a US congressman to seek the ouster of the US ambassador to Ukraine, at the behest of Ukrainian government officials. That happened about the same time that Parnas and Fruman committed to raising more than $20,000 for the politician.
The congressman wasn’t identified by name in court papers, but the donations to ‘‘Congressman 1’’ in the indictment match campaign finance reports for former Representative Pete Sessions, a Texas Republican who lost his re-election bid in November 2018. In May 2018, Parnas posted a photo of himself and his business partner David Correia with Sessions in his Capitol Hill office, with the caption ‘‘Hard at work !!’’
John Dowd, an attorney for the men, hung up on an Associated Press reporter calling about the case. Giuliani said he couldn’t comment on the case and that he didn’t represent them in campaign finance matters.
The men were arrested around 6 p.m. Wednesday and booked at a local jail in Alexandria, Virginia. They were expected to appear in federal court. Two other men, Correia and Andrew Kukushkin, a Ukrainian-born US citizen, were also charged in the case.
The indictment says Parnas and Fruman ‘‘sought to advance their personal financial interests and the political interests of at least one Ukrainian government official with whom they were working’’ and took steps to conceal it from third parties, including creditors. They created a limited liability corporation, Global Energy Producers, and ‘‘intentionally caused certain large contributions to be reported in the name of GEP instead of in their own names,’’ according to the indictment.
Prosecutors charge that the two men falsely claimed the contributions came from GEP, which was described as a liquefied natural gas business. At that point, the company had no income or significant assets, according to the indictment.
Prosecutors allege that Parnas and Fruman conspired to make illegal contributions in an effort to skirt the limit on federal campaign contributions. The men are also accused of making contributions to candidates for state and federal office, joint fundraising committees and independent expenditure committees in the names of other people.
The political donations were made ‘‘for the purpose of gaining influence with politicians, so as to advance their own personal financial interests and the political interests of Ukrainian government officials, including at least one Ukrainian government official with whom they were working,’’ the indictment charges.
The commitment to raise more than $20,000 for the congressman was made in May and June 2018. The lawmaker had also received about $3 million in independent expenditures from a super political action committee that Parnas and Fruman had been funding. A super PAC can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money in support of a candidate but isn’t allowed to directly coordinate with the official campaign.
As a result of the donations, Parnas and Fruman had several meetings with Sessions and at the meetings, Parnas lobbied the congressman to advocate for the removal of the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Berman said. Trump referred to Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who was indeed recalled to the US, as ‘‘bad news’’ in his July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
‘‘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,’’ said Berman, whose office had brought unrelated charges against the president’s former legal ‘‘fixer’’ Michael Cohen last year.
The indictment also charges that Kukushkin conspired with the three other defendants to make political contributions, funded by a foreign national, to politicians seeking state and federal office ‘‘to gain influence with candidates as to policies that would benefit a future business venture.’’
An unnamed foreigner wired $500,000 from a bank account overseas through New York to the defendants for political contributions to two political candidates for state office in Nevada, the indictment alleges. Foreigners are not permitted to contribute to US elections.
The indictment accuses the four men of also participating in a scheme to acquire retail marijuana licenses through donations to local and federal politicians in New York, Nevada and other states.
The big PAC donation in May 2018 was part of a flurry of political spending tied to Parnas and Fruman, with at least $478,000 in donations flowing to GOP campaigns and PACs in little more than two months.
The money enabled the relatively unknown entrepreneurs to quickly gain access to the highest levels of the Republican Party, including face-to-face meetings with Trump at the White House and Mar-a-Lago in Florida.
America First Action said the $325,000 contribution would remain in a separate account while the court cases play out. A spokeswoman, Kelly Sadler, said the committee will ‘‘scrupulously comply with the law.’’
AP reported last week that Parnas and Fruman helped arrange a January meeting in New York between Ukraine’s former top prosecutor, Yuri Lutsenko, and Giuliani, as well as other meetings with top government officials.
Giuliani’s efforts to launch a Ukrainian corruption investigation were echoed by Trump in his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Zelenskiy. That conversation is now at the heart of the impeachment inquiry.
House Democrats subpoenaed Parnas and Fruman on Thursday for documents they have so far refused to produce to three House committees. The panels have also subpoenaed Giuliani.
A whistle-blower complaint by an unnamed intelligence official makes reference to ‘‘associates’’ of Giuliani in Ukraine who were attempting to make contact with Zelenskiy’s team, though it’s not clear that refers to Parnas and Fruman. That could put the two men squarely in the middle of the investigation into Giuliani’s activities.