In November of last year, PAY DIRT brought you a story about a $325,000 donation to the pro-Trump super PAC America First Action. The donation came from a company called Global Energy Producers, and we reported on suspicions that it was acting as a “conduit” contributor, effectively concealing the identities of the actual source or sources of that money.
After publication, we got a call from a relatively prominent Trumpworld operative, who proceeded to berate us for reporting on the allegations, which the person insisted were completely trumped-up and politically motivated. Global Energy Producers, he said, was fully capitalized by investors in the energy space, and was conducting bona fide business in pursuit of contracts to export liquified natural gas to Europe.
That was 100 percent untrue, according to federal prosecutors.
Global Energy Producers, the Justice Department alleged in an indictment on Thursday, was integral to a sprawling effort to illegally launder foreign money into American elections, conceal the identities of the actual donors making those contributions, and win favor with the Trump administration in order to advance its executives’ financial and political objectives.
The indictment is a resounding vindication of suspicions that we and others, most notably the good-government nonprofit Campaign Legal Center, have aired about Global Energy Producers and the Soviet-born businessmen behind it, Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas.
The indictment unsealed Wednesday in New York’s Southern District spells out in stunning detail the machinations behind that Global Energy Producers contribution and other donations by the company and its executives. Prosecutors say their efforts to ingratiate themselves with leading Republican politicians, including President Donald Trump, were undertaken at least in part at the behest of an unnamed Ukrainian official who wanted to see the U.S. ambassador to Kyiv removed from her post.
As longtime readers know, we’ve been following this story for well over a year. So we thought we’d spell out the timeline of revelations in the Global Energy Producers saga, starting from the beginning.
When America First Action released its second-quarter Federal Elections Commission report in the summer of 2018, its list of contributors featured some big names and numbers. It reported receiving more than $5 million in contributions, including $2 million from California real-estate developer Geoff Palmer and $1 million from Miami philanthropist Cherna Moskowitz.
But none of those contributions jumped off the page like the $325,000 contribution in May from GEP. What made the donation so intriguing was the near-total lack of publicly available information on the company. It had been formed just a month earlier in Delaware, a state renowned for the secrecy it affords companies incorporated there. At the time, it had no website. It had made just one other political contribution to date: a $50,000 donation to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
PAY DIRT scoured public records and, in spite of that lack of publicly available information, was able to identify Parnas and Fruman as the two individuals behind the company. But its finances and business activities remained murky.
A GEP spokesperson would later tell us that the company was hoping to capitalize on Trump administration efforts to open up European energy markets to American exports. The company aspired to be a giant in the liquified-natural-gas market, and to the extent it was courting prominent politicians, the company said, it was doing so to advance very real and immediate business interests.
Nevertheless, the huge sums of money GEP was tossing around in its first month in existence set off alarm bells among campaign-finance obsessives. CLC filed a complaint with the FEC alleging a reason to believe that the company was acting as a straw donor for another entity or individual. Our write-up of that complaint spawned the angry phone call described above.
We had no idea just how correct we were.
Our initial reports on the GEP donation caught the eye of Michael Pues, who years ago had teamed up with Parnas to finance an action movie starring Jack Nicholson. Pues withdrew $350,000 from his parents’ retirement fund to invest in the project at the urging of Parnas, who assured Pues of his background as a highly successful investor and businessman.
The project fizzled, and in 2011 Pues sued Parnas to recoup the money. A federal court ordered Parnas to repay the money. He still has not done so, and with attorneys’ fees and interest, the amount owed has since swelled to more than $500,000.
So when we reported that Parnas was behind these large political contributions, Pues and his attorney, Tony Andre, began wondering why this money wasn’t going toward the repayment of Parnas’ years-old debts. They reopened a case in a court in Palm Beach, and later a federal court in Florida, to try to recoup that money.
Parnas’ refusal or inability to repay those debts ended up costing him dearly. GEP did its best to slow-walk Andre’s demands for additional information about its financial support from Parnas and GEP. But in the months that followed the reopening of the Pues matter, new financial records would emerge that would directly inform our reporting on the extent to which Parnas and his business associates flouted federal election law.
At the same time, GEP faced a new legal threat in neighboring Miami-Dade County, where one of its investors sued the company and its principals for allegedly defrauding him out of a $100,000 loan. The investor was a Russian energy executive named Felix Vulis, and his lawsuit unearthed new details about just how political GEP’s business strategy was.
Parnas, Fruman, and David Correia, another of their business associates who was also indicted Thursday, told Vulis that their substantial political donations and the political goodwill they were engendering “would greatly assist the business of Defendant GEP,” according to Vulis’ lawsuit.
The lawsuits from Pues and Vulis quickly drew major Trumpworld figures into the Parnas affair. In courting Vulis’ investment, he claimed, GEP executives had name-dropped people including Giuliani; Brian Ballard, a prominent Florida lobbyist and Trump ally; and Nick Ayers, until last year the chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence.
In the Pues case, meanwhile, Andre had obtained documentation showing that Ballard’s eponymous lobbying firm had paid Parnas to refer clients to the firm. Andre even moved to subpoena records from the Trump International Hotel in Washington, where Parnas and Fruman were known to spend significant amounts of time, often in Giuliani’s company. Indeed, according to The Wall Street Journal, the two dined with the president’s personal lawyer at the hotel just hours before their arrest.
But the real bombshell came in June, when Andre secured copies of wire-transfer records associated with a Parnas-owned company called Aaron Investments I LLC. The records showed that company, not GEP, had made the $325,000 donation to America First. It was plain, tangible evidence that—just as we had suspected for nearly a year—GEP was in fact a straw donor.
Most of the wire-transfer records in the federal case’s publicly available docket were redacted. But the redactions were added in a way that allowed the blocks of black ink to be easily removed through a standard PDF editor. Unencumbered by redactions, we got an even fuller picture of Parnas’ finances.
The wire-transfer records showed a few other interesting transactions. But the most compelling was the $1.2 million transferred to Aaron Investments two days before its GEP donation from a Florida real-estate attorney named Russell Jacobs. A couple of years earlier, Jacobs had taught a course on how to structure real-estate deals to comply with U.S. money-laundering laws. His firm had also just handled a series of real-estate transactions on behalf of a company owned by Fruman and his brother and involving a multimillion-dollar condo in the exclusive Bal Harbour neighborhood outside Miami.
All of this information trickled out as reporters dug into the roles that Parnas and Fruman were playing in the scandal that now has President Trump facing down an impeachment inquiry. They were instrumental in facilitating Giuliani’s efforts in Ukraine to dig up dirt on Trump’s political opponents, chiefly Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden.
Parnas, Fruman, and Giuliani also pushed for months to get Marie Yovanovitch, formerly the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, removed from her post. They alleged that she was privately bad-mouthing Trump and blocking investigations into Biden and supposed Ukrainian involvement in the 2016 release of internal Democratic National Committee emails that were, in reality, hacked by agents of the Russian government.
Just this week, we dug into former Rep. Pete Sessions’ (R-TX) role in that effort as well. Days after Sessions met with Parnas and Fruman last year, he shot off a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo regurgitating many of the same allegations against Yovanovitch. The following month, Parnas and Fruman each donated to Sessions individually. By Election Day, America First had spent more than $3 million backing Sessions’ unsuccessful re-election bid.
The Department of Justice has been investigating GEP’s finances since at least early this year, according to NBC News. And according to CNN, the department wasn’t initially planning to immediately unseal the indictment against Parnas and Fruman, and did so Thursday only because they were arrested at Washington Dulles Airport during an apparent attempt to flee the country.
The indictment itself spells out allegations even more damning and outlandish than publicly available information indicated. Prosecutors allege that Fruman, Parnas, and Correia used Global Energy Producers as a shell company through which to launder their own personal political contributions in a way that hid their identities from both the public and from creditors like Pues attempting to recoup money they were owed.
Prosecutors also spelled out an entirely different scheme to funnel money from an unnamed Russian national into the campaigns of state-level political officials. According to the indictment, Correia put together a spreadsheet of their target candidates. He, Fruman, and Parnas then solicited seven-figure sums from this unnamed Russian, with explicit behind-the-scenes discussions about how that money would be illegally laundered and disbursed into the campaigns of numerous U.S. political candidates.
That scheme was allegedly designed to advance a separate business venture from GEP. According to prosecutors, Parnas, Fruman, and Correia had teamed up with a California man named Andrey Kukushkin, who runs a number of cannabis dispensaries in Western states. Together, they devised a plan to ramp up that business in Nevada in particular.
Campaign-finance records in that state show that Fruman donated $10,000 to Adam Laxalt and Wesley Duncan, 2018 Republican candidates for governor and attorney general, respectively, within days of the November election. Prosecutors say those donations used funds provided by the unnamed Russian coconspirator.
Public records show they were active donors in other states as well. In addition to GEP’s $50,000 donation to DeSantis’ PAC, Fruman and Aaron Investments each donated $10,000 to Florida Grown PC, a political group benefiting former Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who lost the race for the Republican gubernatorial nomination to DeSantis last year.
Years earlier, in 2011, Correia, Parnas, and Parnas’ wife, Svetlana, all donated to the San Francisco mayoral campaign of Leland Yee, a California state senator who in 2014 was arrested on corruption and gun-running charges. Yee was later sentenced to five years in prison. It’s not clear what the Parnas clique’s interest in the race was.
We expect more information to emerge on this crew’s alleged schemes to game American elections on behalf of their murky financial and political interests. The federal criminal case against them will be just another avenue for the public to gain access to information about people who stumbled backward into public prominence as some of the most consequential figures of Trump’s first term in office.
As always, PAY DIRT will be keeping a close eye on every new development. And we welcome all our colleagues to a story that, honestly, we had no idea would blow up on this scale when we started covering it more than a year ago.
When information about this scheme started making it into media reports, a Parnas associate told him, “[t]his is what happens when you become visible, ... the buzzards descend.” According to the indictment, Parnas responded, “[t]hat’s why we need to stay under the radar.”
We’re doing our best to ensure that Parnas and his ilk never stay under the radar.