He’s referred to as a Soviet-born businessman, a close Rudy Giuliani confidante and a Ukrainian networker — but Lev Parnas, the man at the nucleus of the Trump impeachment scandal now cooperating with investigators, remains a shadowy figure with a checkered record.
Parnas, 47, also known as Larry Parnell, and his business partner Igor Fruman, 53, were among four individuals who were arrested on Oct. 9 at Dulles International Airport in Virginia, in possession of one-way tickets to Vienna. Federal prosecutors in New York indicted the pair, who have pleaded not guilty, on campaign finance violations. Giuliani has also been reportedly under investigation over federal lobbying laws.
“He (Lev) tried to have some influence in upper circles, but he is not well-known to the most powerful people in Ukraine,” says Anton Kuchukhidze, a Ukraine-based international relations analyst. “But that doesn’t mean he didn’t have some influence on policy in Ukraine. It is a difficult country.”
Nonetheless, Parnas has subsequently become a person of great interest in the Trump-Ukraine saga. He has agreed to cooperate with lawmakers in the ongoing impeachment and has turned over troves of text messages, photos, documents and recordings to investigators.
In this Dec. 2, 2019, file photo, Lev Parnas arrives at court in New York. Parnas, a close associate of President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has provided a trove of text messages and photos to the House committee leading the impeachment inquiry. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Yet questions have subsequently been raised as to whether he is offering a wincing blow to the Trump team’s defense – insisting that the president was minutely aware of his back-channel work in Ukraine to push for a corruption probe concerning Joseph Biden’s son – or if he is merely posturing to save himself.
Audio of President Trump discussing Ukraine dealings with Parnas was shared publicly over the weekend by Parnas’ attorney, Joseph Bondy, who tweeted that it was released “given its importance to our national interest.”
The tape, purportedly from an April 2018 donor dinner at Trump’s Washington D.C. hotel, features Trump voicing his desire to “get rid of” the then-US ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yavanovitch, who was recalled in April. Parnas and Fruman are reported to have been at the center of propelling Yavanovitch’s ouster.
It remains unclear if Trump was aware he was being recorded and for what purpose the recording took place. Nonetheless, many close to Trump’s inner-circle have deemed it a notable security flaw, given that the recording continued for one-hour and twenty-four minutes. Bondy has said that he has more recordings of the president.
Moreover, a multitude of photographs have also been brought to light — a bevy of pictures and selfies with everyone from Giuliani to Donald Trump Jr. to Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.
Kuchukhidze emphasized the importance for those trying to penetrate high wealth and political echelons of Ukraine to “demonstrate” their closeness and give voracity to claims that they could “solve big political and business issues.”
Yet just how close Parnas was – outside the bells and whistles of selfies and donor dances – to Trump’s inner echelon remains to be seen.
Eyewitnesses recalled seeing Giuliani at a members-only Manhattan cigar bar with Parnas for more than a year, and the former New York City mayor himself has said that he is the godfather to Parnas’ son. Giuliani responded on Fox News that he was “heartbroken” by his former associate’s “lies,” and that Parnas ultimately “misled” him. He also asserted that Parnas’ motivation in speaking out was to save himself from going to prison.
Parnas told the New Yorker that it was because of his Ukrainian background and contacts, that he was able to become Giuliani’s “assistant, his investigator.” His now-private Instagram account purportedly shows images with Trump and his family members first appearing in 2015, and Giuliani as late as 2018, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Others closely connected to Giuliani told Fox News that Parnas’ name wasn’t especially integral to his discussions about Ukraine, and in more recent times, barely came up.
U.S. President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani has coffee with Ukrainian-American businessman Lev Parnas at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 20, 2019. REUTERS/Aram Roston
While Fruman has opted to stay silent while under house arrest in Miami, Parnas has taken a far more public strategy — he has appeared on primetime CNN and MSNBC shows to defend his case and illuminate the degree to which the president approved of the interference in Ukraine affairs. He claimed on MSNBC that the president “was aware of all movements,” which the White House has rebuffed. He also admitted that his house was adorned with the photographs of the president and that he “idolized him” and viewed him as “the savior.”
Parnas, according to the New Yorker, started working at Kings Highway Realty when he was just 16 “selling Trump Organization co-ops.”
Trump has since dismissed Parnas as a “conman” and “a groupie that shows up at fundraisers.”
Some in Washington concurred that scores of such people surround the presidential bubble.
“DC is an ego. Big egos abound and, based on the news accounts, it seems Parnas was full of his,” noted Dan Gainor, the vice president of business and culture at the Washington-based Media Research Center.
Parnas was born in then-Soviet Ukraine and relocated to the United States as a small child, going on to become a naturalized citizen. Through his sizable political donations, Parnas was able to muscle his way into Trump’s ellipse, starting with $50,000 just before the 2016 election.
Based in Boca Raton, Fla., where he resided with his third wife and children, others in the community remembered him as someone who spoke of his clout and hustled for connections evoking the energy industry card in networking circles.
Parnas’ early career in the import/export business – shipping freight containers between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union in the 1990s – brought financial success, prompting him to then move into the securities industry, and later into emerging technology.
More than 20 businesses are registered under Parnas’ name, in addition to one fictitious business name. One is Global Energy Producers (GEP), founded by Parnas and Fruman in April 2018. However, federal prosecutors allege that it was a shell company used by the co-founders to illegally channel money into U.S. elections, commonly referred to as a “straw donor scheme.”
This Facebook screen shot provided by The Campaign Legal Center, shows from left, Donald Trump, Jr., Tommy Hicks, Jr., Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, posted on May 21, 2018. (The Campaign Legal Center via AP)
Much of Parnas and Fruman’s work in recent years has centered on brokering a natural gas deal – exporting from the U.S. to Ukraine – where promoting access to the top of the Trump echelon is of high value. Nonetheless, the deal never came to fruition.
Another such business endeavor was Fraud Guarantee, which was ignited in 2013 and sold investment insurance.
According to WSJ, Giuliani insisted upon $500,000 to work as a consultant for Fraud Guarantee. Parnas and Fruman then turned to another Trump donor to pay the fee in a trade for a stake in the company, the report said.
Several people closely tied to the political and business framework in Ukraine underscored that Fruman was significantly more connected in high-value circuits in Ukraine than his sidekick.
“(Lev) was not well-known and understood by President Zelensky’s closest political circle, so that they would perceive him as an equal negotiator and build trusting relationships with him,” noted Igor Egorov, the president of the Kyiv-based nonprofit Anticorruption Entrepreneurial Front. “It seems to me that his initial contacts with Ukrainian politicians were established thanks to his partner Igor Fruman. Since it is Fruman who has large assets in Ukraine and has Ukrainian politicians in business partners.”
Arsen Avakov, the minister of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, provided Parnas with security, and the ex-Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko conducted long confidential correspondence with him during the cadence, Egorov pointed out.
Given the overhanging federal indictment, the question of Parnas’ credibility has also been thrust front-and-center.
“Based on the known information, Parnas had problems with securing obligations and unpaid debts, and his whole business is riddled with various scandals. Therefore, I would be very doubtful of the veracity of his testimonies,” Egorov continued. “It seems to me that most of his testimony is not based on facts or real events. I tried to find out information about his activities in container shipping, but I could not get confirmation from his forwarding community, as no one had heard of him as a carrier of goods.”
A courtroom sketch of Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, associates of Rudy Giuliani, during their bond hearing. (William Hennessy Jr / CourtroomArt.com)
Taras Semenyuk, of the strategic consulting firm KyivStratPro, told Fox News that Parnas “was the line between Trump and people close to President Zelensky” and endeavored to do “non-public diplomacy” through one of the newly elected president’s consultants.
“Parnas wants to save his soul. He understands (that) defending Trump is the same as losing freedom,” he said. “Parnas was an instrument, but the head was Trump. His logic was economical, ‘profit for profit.’”
Parnas’ attorney did not respond to a request for comment, but has remained especially visible on Twitter with regard to the high-profile case, calling for “a fair proceeding, with witnesses & evidence.”
Parnas himself is forbidden from attending the trial, given that he is court-ordered to wear a GPS ankle monitor as he awaits trial. And it’s not his first brush with authorities.
A search of Palm Beach County court records shows 32 entries for Parnas — the vast portion being civil cases, including 12 eviction cases between 2012-2018 and two foreclosures. One eviction case filed in 2018 was dismissed later that year.
A 2008 filing in Miami-Dade County Court was categorized as “repeat violence,” in which Parnas, Politico reported, allegedly held a gun to a property owner’s head after being told to leave.
The case was subsequently dismissed.