The state funeral for former President George H.W. Bush in 2018 featured a who’s who of U.S. political heavyweights.
The nation’s four living former presidents and their wives were in the first row of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Alongside were President Donald Trump and his wife. Bush’s eldest son, former president George W. Bush, sat nearby with his wife and extended family.
Among the mourners was the man once known to millions as America’s Mayor and now Trump’s personal lawyer: Rudy Giuliani. He was accompanied by — who?
The chubby man in the dark suit was Lev Parnas, a Soviet-born businessman known to few at the time. Now, the 47-year-old Florida resident is famed as Giuliani’s associate in pressing for an investigation that could discredit former Vice President Joe Biden, a Trump rival in the 2020 presidential race, by digging up dirt in Parnas’ native Ukraine.
Lev Parnas, left, accompanies Rudy Giuliani, personal lawyer for President Donald Trump, to the funeral of former President George H.W. Bush at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. on December 5, 2018. ALEX EDELMAN, AFP via Getty Images
Parnas’ relationship with Giuliani wasn’t all business. He’d honored Giuliani by naming him godfather of his young son. Just a few weeks before the final farewell for the nation’s 41st president, Giuliani invited Parnas to join him at Shelly’s Back Room, a clubby Washington retreat for cigar and whiskey aficionados.
“Sounds good I’ll meet you there,” Parnas answered via text. He said he’d bring Rep. Pete Sessions, a Texas Republican and longtime Giuliani ally who had just lost his seat in the midterm elections.
Parnas’ uninvited attendance at the funeral illustrated the meteoric rise and curious position of a man who played Sancho Panza to Giuliani’s Don Quixote, a status enabled in part by large contributions to Republican politicians and Trump-related campaign committees.
I’m officially part of team trump
Parnas is no longer cigar buddies with America’s Mayor. Instead, he’s dishing about his work with Giuliani in Ukraine and providing reams of messages and documents to House impeachment investigators.
He says the evidence shows Trump approved of his work to pressure Ukraine to investigate Biden. House investigators agree. They’ve sent it to the Senate for potential consideration in Trump’s impeachment trial, currently underway in the Senate.
While Parnas has described his turnabout and prime-time TV interviews as patriotic truth-telling, he’s also angling for leniency in a campaign finance case brought against him by federal prosecutors in New York.
Parnas’ journey to a state funeral and Manhattan federal court started with his family’s emigration from Odessa, Ukraine, to the U.S. when he was three years old.
Now a naturalized U.S. citizen, he grew up in Brooklyn, home to many immigrants from Eastern Europe.
Over the years he sold condos and closed deals. He signed up and fell out with business partners. He started new ventures and watched them fold. He was evicted and sued. He was a doting father described by some as a con man.
By March 2019, jetting around the world with Giuliani, he seemed to have reached a milestone. “I’m officially part of team trump,” he wrote in a WhatsApp message to Harry Sargeant III, a wealthy Florida energy mogul and GOP donor.
That may have been true until last week, when House impeachment investigators disclosed the trove of material Parnas turned over.
They contend the evidence bolsters their case that Trump should be removed from office for his role in a scheme to withhold nearly $400 million in U.S. military aid from Ukraine unless government officials there investigated Biden’s family.
Giuliani associate Lev Parnas claims Trump knew about Ukraine
Rudy Giuliani’s associate Lev Parnas said President Trump “knew exactly what was going on” in Ukraine.
“President Trump knew exactly what was going on,” Parnas told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.
His story, told through impeachment investigation records, court filings and other records and interviews, shows how someone with campaign cash – or the promise of it – managed to become part of Trump’s orbit despite some unwelcome baggage. Parnas’ attorney, Joseph Bondy, did not respond to an interview request.
“I went from being a top donor, from being at all the events where we would just socialize, to becoming a close friend of Rudy Giuliani’s, to eventually becoming his ally and his asset on the ground in Ukraine,” Parnas told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
One business venture after another
Parnas said his first connection with the Trump family came early in his career, selling Brooklyn apartments for Fred Trump, the president’s father. Records of his addresses from the mid-1990s link him to a real estate company not far from the elder Trump’s office.
By 1997, Parnas was living in Boca Raton, Florida, where he registered to vote as a Republican. Two years later, he got a license to carry a concealed weapon.
Parnas was a broker for three companies that were expelled by a Wall Street association that self-regulates financial brokerages and brokers. He was not personally implicated in any of the alleged wrongdoing.
By the mid-2000s, Parnas had moved on to Edgetech International, a penny-stock company registered in Nevada. Serving as CEO, he ran the company from a Florida office and marketed an early mobile internet device known as the PC Edge. The company ultimately folded.
Lev Parnas arrives at federal court in New York City, where he is charged with violating federal campaign finance laws, on Dec. 2, 2019. Seth Wenig, AP
“Sometimes we were buying Rolexes,” he told The Washington Post. “And sometimes we were selling the Rolexes to make the rent.”
And then there were the times he didn’t make the rent. The owner of an apartment complex in Boca Raton repeatedly sued him for failing to pay. A law firm in Hollywood, Florida, sued him in 2012 to collect nearly $27,000 in legal bills for battling eviction from another property.
One creditor has spent a decade chasing Parnas.
In November 2010, Parnas met with Michael Pues, the New Jersey owner of a stone industry company, at the Millennium Hotel in New York City. At the time, Parnas was Pues’ investment broker.
Pues had signed up after Parnas touted himself as “the youngest stockbroker out there,” someone who was “driving around in a Bentley” and never lost money for his clients, according to a court filing.
In late 2010, Parnas asked Pues to invest in a movie called “Anatomy of an Assassin.” Parnas introduced Pues to Rudy Durand, a Hollywood writer and producer. Durand and actor Jack Nicholson met with Pues in Manhattan’s swank Carlyle Hotel to discuss the project, the court filing shows.
I trusted him with everything. He used to call me family.
Pues said he was impressed. He agreed to provide a short-term, $350,000 loan from his family’s trust. He hasn’t been repaid, despite years chasing Parnas in court.
A federal judge in Brooklyn issued a $350,000 judgment against Parnas and his Parnas Holdings company in late 2015. With interest, the debt has soared to more than $678,000.
Pues testified that Parnas agreed verbally to return the money after 45 days. But after making the loan, he said he was unable to reach Parnas again.
Instead, a Parnas associate responded by saying the company couldn’t repay. Pues said he felt conned by the man he once trusted.
“I trusted him with everything. He used to call me family,” he said in a court hearing.
Durand, who appeared in court as a witness for the Pues family trust, testified “that at one time he liked and trusted Lev, but that he later found him to be a con artist,” according to the judgment.
Trump donations open doors
Despite the debts, Parnas still had access to funds. In October 2016, the closing stretch of the presidential election, he provided financial backing for the son of the man who gave him one of his first jobs.
On the same day that month, Parnas contributed $50,000 to the Trump Victory political action committee and $2,700 to the Donald J. Trump for President campaign committee, the maximum allowed for the general election.
He hadn’t donated to federal campaigns before, elections records show. “I never was in politics,” he told CNN. “I was just a businessman trying to get by.”
The PAC contribution listed Parnas’ employer as Fraud Guarantee, a company he created in part to ensure that Google searches of his name would produce positive results, rather than surface prior allegations of fraud, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Parnas’ company, which offered products and services to guard against investment fraud, had no sign of any customers at the time of the contributions. However, it later received a $1.5 million investment from Magnolia Ventures, a New York City-based venture capital fund.
This Facebook screen shot provided by The Campaign Legal Center, shows President Donald Trump standing with Lev Parnas, top left photo, at the White House in Washington, posted on May 1, 2018. AP
Parnas’ donations gave him a seed of credibility among Trump allies. Shortly after Trump took office in January 2017, Parnas tried to advance his business prospects.
He contacted Michael Cohen, who at the time was Trump’s personal lawyer and longtime problem fixer, and asked for a meeting with the president, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.
Parnas wanted to discuss a proposal to prevent fraud and waste in government, the person said. It’s unclear whether such a meeting took place, though Parnas told CNN he met Cohen a couple of times.
Cohen is serving a three-year prison sentence for evading taxes, lying to Congress and banks, and arranging secret payments to buy the silence of two women who said they had sexual affairs with Trump years before he was elected. Trump has denied the claims.
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This Facebook image posted on on May 21, 2018, shows (from left) Donald Trump Jr., Tommy Hicks Jr., Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman. It was provided by The Campaign Legal Center. AP
By 2018, Parnas’ donations started to pay off in the form of invitations to Trump fundraisers and other events.
In May 2018, Parnas posted a photo to Facebook. He and Igor Fruman, a Belarus-born business associate and future co-defendant, were sitting at a table with Donald Trump Jr. and Tommy Hicks Jr., a wealthy Trump fundraiser from Texas.
On social media, Parnas posted photo after photo with GOP figures. Trump. Trump Jr. Hicks. And others that Parnas’ attorney has publicized recently in response to Trump allies’ efforts to disavow or discredit him. They include Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway and former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
GOP heavyweights were just a text message away
In May 2018, Parnas and Fruman contributed $325,000 to America First Action, a pro-Trump super PAC.
That donation would eventually land them in federal court. Prosecutors accuse them of concealing the true source of the money, part of a scheme to win influence by funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars to U.S. election candidates and campaign committees.
But in the short term, the transaction apparently helped put Parnas in touch with Joseph Ahearn, the director of development for America First Policies, the PAC’s sibling nonprofit. Ahearn kept Donald Trump Jr. apprised of Ukraine-related issues.
On March 20, Ahearn sent Parnas a WhatsApp message asking, “What should I send Don to tweet?” according to documents Parnas’ lawyer provided to House impeachment investigators.
Parnas forwarded some news stories. “Have jr retweet it,” he said. Ahearn responded, “Sent.”
Hicks, the wealthy Trump family loyalist who’s now the co-chair of the Republican National Committee, also exchanged messages with Parnas. He advised Parnas that the owner of The Daily Caller, a conservative news and opinion website, was a friend.
“We should let him know what we know at the right time,” he messaged Parnas, who responded “100%.”
Just becoming expensive to fly you guys everywhere LEV
But even as Parnas corresponded and hobnobbed with political elites, he had to figure out how to pay for it all, and how to support his family.
Sargeant, the Florida businessman, funded some of Parnas’ travel as he jetted to Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe, documents released by House impeachment investigators show.
On April 10, Parnas messaged Sargeant via WhatsApp after discovering that a trip to Vienna had been canceled.
“Just becoming expensive to fly you guys everywhere LEV,” Sargeant replied.
Sargeant’s attorney has said his client loaned the funds after Parnas said he was broke and pledged to repay it.
Parnas seemed eager to defuse the situation. “We are never expecting you to pay for it my brother that’s why we wanted to do the loan so we don’t have to bother you,” he told Sargeant.
The relationship nonetheless continued.
At one point, Parnas asked Sargeant to call, dangling the prospect of “juicy stuff.” When Sargeant asked what it was, Parnas demurred. A week later, he told Sargeant, “Working hard to save our country my brother!!!!”
‘A middleman between two worlds’
Giuliani told Reuters that Parnas’ Fraud Guarantee firm paid him $500,000 for legal and technical consulting work in 2018. The money actually came from Charles Gucciardo, a Republican donor and Trump supporter from Long Island, The New York Times reported.
Gucciardo agreed to invest in Fraud Guarantee because it was a “company that Rudolph Giuliani was going to be the spokesman and the face of,” said Gucciardo’s attorney, Randy Zelin, according to the report.
That deal meant Giuliani was working for Parnas. Yet in a May 2019 tweet, he identified Parnas and Fruman as his legal clients.
Their relationship apparently strengthened as Giuliani realized Parnas’ language ability and Fruman’s contacts in Ukraine could help him investigate the financial dealings of Hunter Biden, the son of Joe Biden. The younger Biden had been a well-compensated board member of Burisma Holdings, a Ukraine energy company.
Giuliani has alleged that Joe Biden abused his office by urging the 2016 firing of Viktor Shokin, at the time Ukraine’s chief prosecutor, out of concern that Shokin might implicate Hunter Biden in a corruption investigation.
Parnas seemed to be in constant communication with Trump allies and Ukrainian officials who might advance his efforts to implicate Biden in a scandal. “I was the middleman between two worlds,” Parnas told Cooper on CNN.
Rudy Giuliani associate Lev Parnas: ‘I’ll be vindicated’
Two associates of Rudy Giuliani were arraigned Wednesday on charges they used straw donors to make illegal campaign contributions to politicians and committees to advance their business interests. (Oct. 23)
Parnas was Giuliani’s go-between with Yuriy Lutsenko, who until August was the chief prosecutor in Ukraine. In WhatsApp messages written in Russian, Lutsenko complained about U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and pressed for her removal.
Giuliani wanted her out, too, apparently believing she could hinder his Ukraine investigation. He referred to her as a “crooked Ambassador” in a May text to Parnas that was included in the material turned over to House impeachment investigators.
As for Trump’s view, he apparently was recorded telling associates that he wanted Yovanovitch fired, ABC News reported on Friday. The purported remarks were made as Trump met with a small gathering that included Parnas and Fruman, the report said. If authenticated, the remarks could undercut Trump’s statements that he did not know the business associates
Yovanovitch has denied any wrongdoing and insisted she never criticized Trump or his administration, as some Trump supporters claim.
As the weeks of early 2019 dragged on and Yovanovitch remained in Kyiv, Parnas sought to reassure an increasingly irritated Lutsenko.
“It’s just if you all don’t decide on the madame – you all question all my statements. Including the one on B,” Lutsenko told Parnas on March 22, a possible reference to Biden. Three days later, he complained: “You can’t remove one stupid woman from office.”
“She is not a simple stupid woman, believe me,” Parnas responded. “Well, she won’t get away for long.”
Around May 2018, Parnas and Fruman met separately with Sessions, a Texas Republican and longtime Giuliani backer. They pledged to raise $20,000 for Sessions’ reelection, according to the criminal indictment against the Soviet-born partners.
Sessions wrote a May 9, 2018, letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claiming he had evidence Yovanovitch had disparaged Trump and asking for her removal. Sessions later said the letter was unrelated to Parnas and Fruman.
Sessions, who received a federal grand jury subpoena in the campaign finance case, has said he had no involvement in the alleged scheme.
Parnas sent Giuliani a copy of Sessions’ letter in December 2018. Later that day, Parnas texted: “Just spoke with Pete I’ll update you tomorrow.”
Former Ukraine ambassador Marie Yovanovitch testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Nov. 15, 2019, in the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump. Jack Gruber, USA TODAY
In April 2019, Giuliani texted Parnas an update that appeared to refer to either Pompeo or Trump: “He fired her again.”
“I pray it happens this time I’ll call you tomorrow my brother,” replied Parnas.
Pressed by Trump, the Department of State abruptly recalled Yovanovitch to Washington, D.C., the next day.
The Giuliani-Parnas partnership ruptures
After Trump’s July phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, an unidentified whistleblower filed a complaint that ultimately triggered the impeachment proceedings against Trump.
The whistleblower complained that the president appeared to abuse his office with an improper quid pro quo: withholding congressionally-approved U.S. military aid for Ukraine while pressing Zelensky for an investigation of the Biden family.
Trump has denied the allegations, calling the phone call “perfect” and characterizing the impeachment proceedings as a hoax.
In October, three months after that complaint, Parnas and Fruman were arrested before they boarded a plane to Europe with one-way tickets. The indictment alleged that their scheme, carried out with help from an unidentified Ukrainian government official and funding from a Russian national, was aimed at buying “potential influence with candidates, campaigns, and the candidates’ governments.”
Parnas, Fruman and two co-defendants pleaded not guilty.
Then Giuliani learned that federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, the office he once led and the one that charged Parnas and Fruman, were investigating his business dealings.
Giuliani said he had done nothing improper.
The day after Parnas and Fruman were arrested, House impeachment investigators issued subpoenas. The two initially said they would not cooperate. At the time, their attorney was John Dowd, a longtime Giuliani ally and former lawyer for Trump.
But Parnas changed lawyers and decided to cooperate. His disclosures to House investigators torpedoed his relationship with Giuliani.
Giuliani declared Tuesday he was “heartbroken” over the rupture. He told Fox News’ Laura Ingraham he wouldn’t respond to all of Parnas’ accusations about their dealings, saying, “He in very large part did not tell the truth.”
Trump repeated an earlier denial that he did not know Parnas. In response, Bondy tweeted a video showing Parnas with his arm on Trump’s shoulder during a Mar-a-Lago event in Florida as he introduced the nation’s commander-in-chief to a Ukrainian government official.
No recent selfies of Parnas and GOP heavyweights have surfaced. Instead, his lawyer has posted photos of Parnas smiling with the TV journalists who interviewed him about his exploits.
Contributing: Kristine Phillips