When it came to their dealings in Ukraine over the last year, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman wore two hats.
The Florida businessmen were helping President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani set up meetings with high level Ukrainian officials, according to documents obtained by the State Department inspector general. Giuliani has acknowledged that he lobbied those people to investigate the Bidens and the 2016 campaign, in what Democrats say was an effort to uncover dirt on the president’s political enemies.
But Parnas and Fruman were also trying to make money by drumming up a deal to sell liquified natural gas to Ukraine’s big state energy company, and to oust the management at the company with help from their friends in the Trump administration, two people familiar with the matter told NBC News.
The charges filed against the men Thursday allege that their playbook was to pursue political influence as a way of furthering their business interests. That’s exactly what they appeared to be doing with the contributions to a Trump-linked political committee, and their work with Giuliani in Ukraine, according to the two sources.
Parnas and Fruman, both born in the former Soviet Union, boasted of their connections to Giuliani and the White House when they invited an executive at Ukraine’s Naftogaz gas company, Andrew Fovorov, for a meeting in Houston in March, where they made their pitch, the sources said.
They told Fovorov that they wanted Naftogaz CEO Andriy Kobolev removed and Fovorov to take his place, the sources said. Kobolev had won high praise from U.S. and European officials for his anti-corruption efforts.
The two told Fovorov that “they would promote him to replace the current CEO,” said the second source familiar with the discussions. They would do that, they said, if he supported their plan to sell American natural gas to Ukraine — a plan that has significant logistical hurdles, the sources said.
The men also predicted that the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, would soon be forced out of her job by the White House, and that would help open the way to their proposed deal, according to the two people.
Parnas and Fruman alleged the ambassador was an obstacle to U.S. business interests, even though there was no evidence to back that up, Perry said.
“That was extremely surprising and disturbing because I found the ambassador to be very professional,” Dale Perry, an American energy executive who does business in Ukraine, told NBC News. “That told me that something didn’t smell right.”
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Parnas and Fruman appeared to have accurate inside information about the administration’s plans. Yovanovitch was abruptly recalled as ambassador two months later, curtailing her scheduled tenure.
Yovanovitch’s premature exit from Kyiv is now at the center of an impeachment inquiry by House Democrats, who accuse President Trump of abusing his power to push Ukraine to investigate his political rival, former vice president Joe Biden and his son. Trump has dismissed the inquiry as a “witch hunt” and the White House says it will refuse to hand over documents or cooperate with the congressional probe.
The administration has defended Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, including a phone call to the Ukrainian President Zelensky, as merely an effort to ensure the government address corruption.
But the bid by Parnas and Fruman to oust Naftogaz’s chief ran counter to a years-long anti-corruption agenda backed by Washington, European governments and the International Monetary Fund, former U.S. officials said.
Perry and the other source said Fovorov immediately rebuffed their proposal, saying he was loyal to the current CEO at Naftogaz, Kobolev, who had recruited him. He viewed Parnas and Fruman as lacking knowledge or credibility in the energy industry in Ukraine, and noted that they had not worked out legal permission or the logistics of moving American LNG via Poland to Ukraine.
Fovorov told business associates about the meeting, and when Perry learned of the conversation, he sent off a memo in April to the U.S. embassy in Kyiv, expressing his concern about what Parnas and Fruman were promoting, Perry said.
The Associated Press first reported on the meeting and the memo written by Dale Perry.
Parnas and Fruman were charged Thursday with funneling foreign money to American candidates as part of a scheme to buy influence in the U.S. political system.
The indictment alleges that Parnas and Fruman conspired to oust Ambassador Yovanovitch at least partially on behalf of an unnamed Ukrainian official.
Their plan to oust Kobolev as CEO at Naftogaz was aimed squarely at one of the country’s most prominent figures seen credited with tackling corruption, a man who has enjoyed strong backing from Western governments in recent years.
“Kobolev is one of the two or three big stars of Ukrainian reform,” said John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
The gas sector had been “ground zero” for corruption in Ukraine, and the U.S., European Union and international organizations had pushed for an overhaul of Naftogaz, which had seen its revenues siphoned off by corrupt businessmen and officials, according to Herbst.
Kobolev oversaw a reorganization of the gas company that ended rampant corruption, and its transformation helped turn the country’s budget deficit into a budget surplus, Herbst and other former U.S. officials said.
“Kobolev is a great hero in this. The efforts to rein him in, coming from various parties, are directed against one of the great reform efforts in Ukraine in the past five years,” Herbst said.
Neither the White House nor John Dowd, a former lawyer for Trump who now represents Parnas and Fruman, responded to requests for comment.
Giuliani offered a terse response: “As I have repeatedly said not involved with Naftogaz.”
Parnas and Fruman were already in the sights of the House Democrats leading the impeachment inquiry. Democrats requested documents and depositions from Parnas and Fruman after they were cited in a whistleblower’s complaint — though not by name — alleging they aided Giuliani’s effort to launch a Ukrainian corruption probe of Joe Biden.
Dowd recently wrote to the House Intelligence Committee saying his clients would not meet a deadline to voluntarily turn over documents relating to their activities with Giuliani. The letter states that Parnas and Fruman “assisted Mr. Giuliani in connection with his representation of President Trump.”
Dowd also wrote that the two assisted Giuliani’s allies, Joseph DiGenova and Victoria Toensing, in their law practice. DiGenova and Toensing are now representing a Ukrainian oligarch, Dmytro Firtash, based in Austria, who is fighting extradition to the U.S. on bribery and racketeering charges.
Hours after Parnas and Fruman were arrested, House Democrats issued subpoenas to the pair Thursday. Dowd has not commented on the indictments or subpoenas.
Parnas and Fruman already have been taken to court by investors, who have accused them of failing to pay debts.
In one case, the family of a stone mason won a $500,000 judgement against Parnas after a judge ruled that Parnas took what was essentially the man life’s savings as part of a movie production scheme that never materialized.
George Kent tells lawmakers he was told to ‘lay low’ after raising concerns about Giuliani
WASHINGTON — State Department official George Kent told lawmakers in a closed-door deposition Tuesday that acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney appointed three other Trump administration officials to spearhead the president’s efforts in Ukraine.
According to Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who was present for the deposition, Kent testified that Mulvaney oversaw a meeting where he sidelined State Department officials and tapped three political appointees — Energy Secretary Rick Perry, European Ambassador Gordon Sondland and special envoy Kurt Volker — to oversee Ukraine policy for the United States.
Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state who worked on Ukraine and five other countries, told congressional investigators that the trio called themselves “the three amigos” and elbowed all the other officials at State out of the way, according to Connolly.
This not the first time Mulvaney was mentioned in depositions as part of the impeachment inquiry. President Donald Trump’s former Russia adviser Fiona Hill testified that then-national security adviser John Bolton said he wanted nothing to do with Mulvaney and Giuliani’s objectives in Ukraine, which Bolton said amounted to a “drug deal.”
Just weeks before the May 23 meeting, Marie Yovanovich was told that she was being recalled as the ambassador to Ukraine despite being told that she had done nothing wrong, according to her congressional testimony last week.
According to Connolly, Kent also testified that after the May 23 meeting, he was told to “lay low” by a superior when he raised concerns about Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who was working to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden.
“The way I took it,” Connolly told NBC News, was that Kent “had just finished describing how he had told people that this is wrong, that Giuliani is out of control.”
Kent also said, according to Connolly, that the Trump allies who pushed for Ukraine to investigate corruption made it clear that “POTUS” wanted cooperation from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and the Ukrainian government.
Kent, who attended meetings and receptions with Zelenskiy and his advisers, said that Sondland and Volker floated the idea of a meeting with Trump, according to Connolly. Text messages between Volker and Sondland released this month also show that Zeleneskiy’s cooperation was expected in order to meet with Trump.
Volker testified behind closed doors last week that Trump wanted the Ukrainian government to investigate corruption in Ukraine but that there was “no quid pro quo” for military and security aid, which the administration had put on hold for nearly four months. Sondland is expected to testify under subpoena on Thursday.
During his nearly 10 hours of testimony, Kent also told members of Congress and their staff that Burisma, the energy company where Hunter Biden was a board member, was corrupt, according to a separate person who was present in the room. Kent said he told the Obama administration in 2016 that they should not hold an event with Burisma because of the company’s extensive corruption in Ukraine.
Kent was called in to testify because he raised the alarm about the disinformation campaign that Giuliani and his associates pushed regarding Ukraine, according to a emails included in the packet that the Intelligence Community’s Inspector General Michael Atkinson provided to Congress, obtained by NBC News. He sent a series of emails to colleagues alerting them of the “fake news driven smear out of Ukraine.”
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