Washington: Two foreign-born Florida businessmen who have been helping President Donald Trump's personal lawyer investigate political rival Joe Biden have been arrested on charges of funnelling foreign money to U.S. political candidates and a pro-Trump election committee, authorities said on Thursday.
The arrests were the latest dramatic development in a political saga that threatens Trump's presidency. They come as the Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives conducts an impeachment inquiry into Trump centred on the Republican president's request in a July telephone call for Ukraine's president to investigate Biden.
The businessmen, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, were arrested in connection with a New York federal case involving campaign finance laws, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan said. The two men were donors to a pro-Trump fundraising committee and the president's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has said they helped him as he sought to investigate former Vice President Biden, a leading Democratic contender in the 2020 presidential election.
Parnas is a Ukrainian businessman. Fruman is a real estate investor who was born in Belarus. Both, according to various media accounts, helped introduce Giuliani into top Ukrainian political circles.
The two men had been planning to fly to Vienna on Wednesday night, according to a source familiar with the matter.
Parnas and Fruman conspired to "funnel foreign money to candidates for federal and state office," according to a federal court filing in New York. The two men made illegal contributions using straw donors, according to the indictment.
John Dowd, the lawyer for Parnas and Fruman, declined to comment on the charges. Giuliani did not immediately return a request for comment.
Jay Sekulow, a lawyer for the president, told Reuters that "neither the president nor the campaign was aware of their scheme," referring to the defendants.
Trump has denied wrongdoing and has described the impeachment probe as a partisan smear.
In May 2018, the indictment said, Parnas and Fruman contributed $325,000 to a pro-Trump political action committee called America First Action. The $325,000 donation was falsely reported as coming from a purported natural gas company, the indictment said.
The two men falsely claimed that the company, GEP, was "a real business enterprise" and that "its major purpose is energy trading, not political activity," the indictment said. In fact, it said, the company had no real business.
According to the indictment, Parnas sought the help of a U.S. congressman - identified by a person familiar with the matter as Republican Pete Sessions - to get the U.S. government to remove the then-ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. Trump called Yovanovitch "bad news" in his July 25 call with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Yovanovitch was removed from the post by Trump.
The indictment said the efforts were conducted at least in part at the request of at least one Ukrainian government official. Giuliani told Reuters last week he provided information to both Trump and the State Department about Yovanovitch, who he suggested was biased against Trump. She is scheduled to give testimony to House lawmakers this week.
Sessions, a Republican from Dallas, lost his seat in the 2018 congressional elections to Democrat Colin Allred.
Parnas and Fruman were due to appear at 2 p.m. (1800 GMT) in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Nachmanoff at the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia, according to a spokesman for the federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of Virginia.
Two other people were charged in the indictment: David Correia, a U.S. businessman, and Andrey Kukushkin, a Ukrainian-born U.S. businessman.
In an interview last month, Parnas told Reuters that the FBI was investigating him but said he did not know why, and that he did nothing wrong. "I don't know what the FBI wants. I'm not going to comment, what they are doing. What they did."
"I don't think we know too much" about the investigation, Parnas said, but added that it had to be political. "When you have the heads of the Democratic Party not liking you, it's very easy to get the FBI involved."
Parnas said that any violations of Federal Election Commision rules were unwitting and a "clerical thing" because he was not an experienced political donor. Parnas said he was not trying to hide the source of the $325,000 donation.
Kelly Sadler, a spokeswoman for America First Action Political Action Committee, said the organization takes its legal obligations seriously and scrupulously complies with the law, adding any suggestion otherwise is false.
"In May 2018, America First Action received a $325,000 contribution and donor form from Global Energy Producers. In July 2018, a complaint was filed with the Federal Election Commission concerning this contribution."
Sadler added that there is separate litigation in Florida that concerns these funds.
"Accordingly, America First Action placed that contribution in a segregated bank account, it has not been used it for any purpose and the funds will remain in this segregated account until these matters are resolved."
The Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit that favours campaign finance regulation, had urged a U.S. government agency in a July 2018 complaint to investigate whether Parnas and Fruman had broken the law by using a shell company to disguise the source of the $325,000 donation to the pro-Trump political action committee.
Federal records show Parnas has donated a total of $25,200 to Republican candidates and political groups since the 2016 presidential election, including $2,700 to Representative Pete Sessions and $2,700 to House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy. Fruman has donated $44,201 over that period to Republicans, including Sessions, the Republican National Committee and Trump’s presidential campaign.
Nancy Pelosi, who as House Speaker is the top Democrat in the chamber, launched the impeachment inquiry last month after the revelation that Trump had sought foreign interference in the 2020 election.
A whistleblower complaint to Congress also raised concerns that Trump leveraged $400 million in U.S. aid to try to secure a promise from Ukraine's president to investigate Biden and his son, Hunter Biden.
Democrats are getting impatient with the administration's blocks on its investigation.
"Republicans are now refusing to answer the simplest question: whether it’s acceptable for a president to pressure foreign countries to undermine our elections. American elections should be decided by Americans, not by 'favours' from foreign governments," Pelosi tweeted on Thursday.