WASHINGTON (CN) — Two weeks out from the 2016 elections, a first-time donor born in Ukraine lit up the map of the Republican Party with a $50,000 cash donation to Donald Trump’s joint fundraising committee.
By cutting just one check to Trump Victory Committee — well before he became a central figure in the impeachment of the president he helped elect — Lev Parnas left an indelible mark on two national and 20 state Republican entities.
Trump Victory subdivided his contribution into $33,400 for the Republican National Committee and $2,700 to Trump, the then-maximum allowable donations. The remainder went to GOP entities crisscrossing the country from New York to California, each receiving a modest sum of $661.90.
Official paperwork from the donation lists Parnas an employee of the Fraud Guarantee, the same company Parnas used to hire Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani in a relationship that has drawn scrutiny from federal prosecutors.
Three years later, down to the same month, the Justice Department on Oct. 10 unsealed an indictment of Parnas for using a straw donor and laundering foreign money into U.S. elections. Federal prosecutors claim he and his Fraud Guarantee co-owner, Igor Fruman, used the shell company Global Energy Producers to funnel $325,000 in foreign cash into America First Action, a Trump super-PAC.
Federal records show that the total donations from Parnas, Fruman, Global Energy Producers and an alter ego identified by prosecutors exceeded $620,000.
Representative Kevin McCarthy, the Republican minority leader of the Democrat-controlled House, would later redirect to charity the $2,700 campaign contribution he received from Parnas, as well as a $2,173 contribution from Fruman to Majority Committee PAC, McCarthy’s leadership political action committee.
McCarthy denies that he and Parnas have any relationship, even as pictures of him alongside the criminal defendant, smiling broadly, trickle out.
“I guess I met him one time, and he came to an event and took a picture with me,” the California Republican told Courthouse News last week at a press conference on Capitol Hill.
McCarthy and Parnas indeed attended at least three of the same political events during the 2018 midterms, as Democratic campaigns put longtime red districts at risk of turning blue.
One photograph first obtained by Courthouse News shows both Parnas and Fruman with the House minority leader.
Now that Parnas is sharing information with the House Intelligence Committee, top Republicans financially tied to the indicted Giuliani allies have been pulled back into a scandal that erupted with their arrests in October.
Donald Sherman, deputy director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, explained why politicians are quick to dispose of foreign money.
“Accepting foreign donations is obviously a crime, and that is the threshold problem,” said Sherman, whose group is often abbreviated as CREW.
McCarthy did not respond to telephone or email requests for comment.
WATERGATE’S LEGACY ERODES
To understand how those donations stretched so far, one must first trace the establishment and steady erosion of modern campaign-finance law after the 1972 resignation of President Richard Nixon.
“Right after Watergate, what they realized — or what was alleged at the time — was that Nixon took in about $10 million, which was a lot of money at the time, from foreign donors who weren’t disclosed,” said Eugene Mazo, a campaign-finance professor at Rutgers School of Law.
In the journalistic classic “All the President’s Men,” Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein describe following the money from the Watergate break-in and other dirty tricks to a secret Nixon campaign slush fund linked to a Miami bank account that laundered money through Mexico.
Congress reacted with amendments to the Federal Elections Campaign Act, establishing contribution limits, expenditure limits, a public financing system and a disclosure regime administered by the Federal Elections Commission.
“It was eroded almost immediately in Buckley v. Valeo,” Mazo noted, referring to the 1976 Supreme Court decision that struck down expenditure limits as unconstitutional.
Despite half a century of decisions chipping away at Watergate’s legacy, the Supreme Court has held firm on the ban against foreign money in U.S. elections: one that the high court upheld with Blumen v. FEC in 2012.
“This is what we’re finding: With a lot of the Trump stuff, it seems like foreign money is coming into our elections,” said Mazo, who recently wrote the article “Our Campaign Finance Nationalism” in the Pepperdine Law Review.
Despite receiving money from and posing for photographs with Parnas and Fruman, Trump has played down his association with the two key figures in his impeachment scandal charged with two conspiracy counts.
“I don’t know those gentleman,” Trump said after Parnas and Fruman’s arrest, speaking to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House. “Now, it’s possible I have a picture with them because I have a picture with everybody.”
PROTECT THE HOUSE
Thinly veiling the recipient as “Congressman-1,” Fruman’s indictment says he wrote then-Representative Pete Sessions of Texas two $2,700 checks before the midterm elections, signing one of the checks under Parnas’ name to skirt the individual limits. For Fruman, Global Energy Producers is listed as his employer.
Parnas, Fruman and Sessions would later share the common goal of ousting Marie Yovanovitch, a respected former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. Yovanovitch ultimately recounted the success of these efforts in dramatic impeachment testimony that also implicated the role of President Trump’s unpaid legal maven Rudy Giuliani.
The House Ukraine report names Parnas and Fruman more than 100 times, whether dining with diplomats or on the phone with a Washington journalist and legislators. Kurt Volker, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, met with Parnas at the Trump International Hotel in Washington in 2018. Former National Security Council official Fiona Hill testified during the impeachment inquiry that her colleagues told her, “These guys were notorious in Florida and that they were bad news.”
That reputation in the U.S. national-security establishment did not blunt Parnas and Fruman’s meteoric rise in the Republican Party. Over the course of the 2018 midterm elections, Parnas had emerged from a little-known businessman battling several lawsuits from New York to Florida to become an omnipresent fixture of Trump’s Washington.
One investor in Global Energy Partners sued Parnas and Fruman last year in Miami, alleging that the company was a sham the men solicited money for by touting their proximity not only to Giuliani but to other Trumpland luminaries including the former chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, an influential lobbyist and two business titans.
Photographs documenting these connections quickly surfaced after Parnas was arrested in October, trying to board an international flight out of Washington. Early images showed him with Trump, Giuliani, Pence and McCarthy, and Parnas’ attorney released a slideshow of images Tuesday on Twitter showing his client posing with Ivanka Trump; her husband, Jared Kushner; and her brothers, Eric and Don Jr., set to the track “We Are Family.”
The lawyer, Joseph Bondy, set another of Parnas holding the gavel of former House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions to “U Can’t Touch This” by rapper MC Hammer.
For House Democrats in the impeachment inquiry, records of phone calls Parnas made in 2018 to Congressman Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, became important evidence.
Prosecutors do not allege that any of the donations that Parnas made before the 2016 election were illegal, though they represented a dramatic entrance into the world of Republican fundraising.
The duo’s contributions described in the indictment started months before the 2018 midterm elections, around the time that Parnas and Fruman are accused of having used their shell company and decoy name as a subterfuge.
“In fact, the contribution — and several other significant contributions made at and around the same time — was made in the name of ‘Igor Furman’ not Igor Fruman, the defendant, in a further effort to conceal the source of the funds and to evade federal reporting requirements,” a footnote of the charging papers states.
Fruman donated more than $190,000 under the name “Furman,” just less than a third of the more than $620,000 contributed by Parnas, Fruman and their alter-egos combined, according to a Courthouse News analysis. A $100,000 donation by “Furman” to the House Majority Trust was divided between the Republican National Committee and the National Republic Congressional Committee. All contributions went to Republicans.
Through his $50,000 donation to the joint fundraising committee Protect the House, “Furman” supported 20 GOP politicians fighting tough midterm races with contributions ranging between $2,100 and $2,500. Some prominent recipients like Congressmen Will Hurd of Texas ($2,445.33) and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania ($2,433.00) held onto power. Others like former New York Congresswoman Claudia Tenney, the recipient of a $2,435.84 donation in 2018, lost their seat. Tenney, who said she forwarded Fruman’s donations to charity, is running to reclaim her seat in 2020. Fitzpatrick made a similar claim, while Hurd said he returned the money to the U.S. Treasury.
ETHICS RULES SILENT
Sherman, the CREW deputy director, explained congressional ethics rules are largely silent on the legal obligations of politicians gifted foreign cash.
“The reality is, is that there’s not a ton of good guidance but donating to charity is the designated safe space,” he said, adding that the rules could use an update.
As for Parnas and Fruman’s reliance on joint fundraising committees and super-PACs, Sherman said: “It shows that people that want to corruptly influence politicians will use every mechanism at their disposal and the system is not designed to sort of limit how that money is spread around.”
Before his pre-midterms spending spree, Fruman boasted to the Russian-language publication ForumDaily about why the president invited him to a campaign event at Mar-a-Lago on March 3, 2018.
“In the 2016 elections, I made donations to Trump’s election campaign fund, and now, a year after taking over the presidency, Trump decided it was right again to invite us and turn to his supporters,” Fruman, described by the publication as a longtime GOP supporter, was quoted as saying.
In fact, federal records do not show Fruman as having made any 2016 donations. Only Parnas had contributions recorded under his name. But federal prosecutors say Fruman used Parnas’ name multiple times to evade contribution limits.
Adjusted periodically for inflation, campaign-finance laws currently impose annual limits prohibiting donors from handing out more than $2,800 in funds to a single candidate, $35,500 to national party committees, and $5,000 to a PAC. Joint fundraising committees such as Trump Victory and Protect the House, on the other hand, allow big-money contributors to roll out donations to various campaigns by folding them into a single check written to the committee, which can then transfer the funds to numerous candidates and entities in drops no larger than the existing caps set on direct donations.
These so-called JFCs came under scrutiny in the wake of the 2014 Supreme Court decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, abolishing post-Watergate aggregate limits on donations.
“The government may no more restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse,” Chief Justice John Roberts, who will preside over the Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate, wrote for the 5-4 McCutcheon majority.
Roberts’ liberal colleagues denounced the ruling. “If Citizens United opened a door, today’s decision, we fear, will open a floodgate,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote.
Mazo, the Rutgers professor, found it naive for the McCutcheon majority to deny that doing away with aggregate limits would not corrupt elections, as long as the individual caps remained in place.
“Now of course, anyone with half a brain knows that the way that money is really raised is, you go to a rich friend of yours, and you say, ‘Look, you can only give me $2,800, but you have 100 friends who can give me $2,800. Why don’t you throw a party, and I’ll meet them all at the same party?’” Mazo said in an interview, citing the example of former Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s wine cave controversy.
Unfettering JFCs also contributed to a longstanding trend of U.S. congress members increasingly fundraising outside of their districts.
“I just did a study and what we see is in the 1970s the average congressman raised a third of his donations from outside his district, and now it’s about 72-73%,” Mazo continued, emphasizing the fundraising strategy is a bipartisan phenomenon.
JFCs flourished in the wake of the McCutcheon decision, and Parnas and Fruman repeatedly took advantage of these once obscure fundraising committees.
#LEVREMEMBERS AND FURMAN FORGETS
Through Protect the House, Fruman under his alias “Furman” funneled $2,445.34 to McCarthy’s Majority Committee PAC. McCarthy won his race, but his party lost enough members to transform him into the minority leader.
Parnas separately donated $2,700 to McCarthy, who claims to have returned the money to charity.
McCarthy did not respond to a detailed inquiry about Parnas and Fruman’s donations to him and the GOP.
For months, Parnas’ attorney Bondy has been clamoring for his client to testify before Congress, and Parnas already has begun sharing the contents of his iPhone and other evidence with the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Bondy has goaded Congressman McCarthy and Vice President Pence with tweets showing photos of them with his client, bearing the hashtag #LetLevSpeak and #LevRemembers.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment to detailed questions about Trump and Pence’s relationship to Parnas — including a $5,000 in 2018 to the vice president’s Great America Committee PAC.
In one of at least three political events that they attended together during the 2018 midterms season, Parnas and Fruman were awarded the Chovevei Zion award at the National Council of Young Israel gala, an annual gathering of power-players from the Jewish political right. McCarthy was pictured speaking at the event in a tuxedo.
McCarthy and Parnas also attended fundraisers in summer 2018 for McCarthy and Pence’s joint fundraising committee Protect the House and America First Action Leadership Summit, benefiting Trump’s super-PAC. Attendance didn’t come cheap, with donors forking out up to $250,000 to walk through the door. These events, large-scale affairs for big-dollar donors, were hosted at the Trump International Hotel in Washington.
Unlike Parnas, who is eagerly cooperating with Democrats, Fruman has defied a subpoena to hand over documents to the House Intelligence Committee.
“To date, Mr. Fruman has not produced a single document in response to his subpoena and has not indicated any intent to do so going forward,” the impeachment report from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence states.
Fruman’s attorney Todd Blanch, who previously represented former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, did not respond to a request to phone or email requests for comment.
Still awaiting trial for campaign-finance violations, Fruman and Parnas have their next federal court hearing slated for Feb. 3 in the Southern District of New York, the same day the Iowa caucus kicks off the official start of the Democratic primary for the 2020 presidential race.
Additional research by Brandi Buchman, Jack Rodgers and Tim Ryan.