WASHINGTON — Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, the Soviet-born businessmen and associates of Rudy Giuliani, didn’t seem to think twice about defying Congressional investigators this week.
But they’ll have a much harder time blowing off New York prosecutors, following their indictment on alleged campaign finance violations.
The shock arrest of Parnas and Fruman, caught trying to flee the country Wednesday evening, throws an explosive new element into the impeachment inquiry into the president’s sprawling Ukraine scandal, and reveals yet another dangerous juncture for Trump and Giuliani, former prosecutors told VICE News.
Armed with the threat of serious criminal penalties, federal prosecutors in New York have a much more direct means of forcing the two men to divulge everything they know about the mysterious Giuliani-led mission to undermine Trump’s 2020 Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, than Congress ever did.
“They’ll definitely face intense pressure to cooperate, though they may also think they can hold out for a pardon from a grateful President Trump,” said Rebecca Roiphe, a former prosecutor and expert on prosecutorial ethics at New York Law School.
House Democrats are clamoring to learn more about what Parnas and Fruman were up to. Hours after word of their arrest emerged on Thursday morning, House Democrats subpoenaed both men for documents due on October 16.
“The critical question, if they cooperate, is how much they know about Giuliani, Trump and the specifics of their involvement in Ukraine,” Roiphe said. “If they have confirmation of a quid pro quo, that could solidify the impeachment inquiry.”
Trump, Ukraine and Impeachment
The indictment connects Parnas and Fruman directly to a key moment in Trump’s impeachment drama: the recall of the former American ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, this spring.
The document asserts that the two men, who are both American citizens, followed up a hefty $325,000 donation to a Trump-friendly super PAC in May 2018 with an attempt to get the U.S. government to remove Yovanovitch — at the behest of an unnamed Ukrainian politician.
The indictment says a “Congressman 1,” who has been identified by CNN and others as Pete Sessions, former Republican representative from Texas, received $3 million from that same super PAC. Parnas and Fruman then met with “Congressman 1” and pressed him for help getting rid of the ambassador.
Trump ultimately recalled Yovanovitch in May, shortly before calling her “bad news” on a now-infamous phone call with Ukraine’s President in late July. She’s now scheduled to testify before Congress on Friday.
Those actions took place around the time when both men were busy connecting Giuliani with officials in Ukraine. The two men reportedly helped link Giuliani up with three top Ukrainian prosecutors during his quest to pressure Ukrainian officials to open up an investigation into the Biden family.
Giuliani has publicly identified Parnas and Fruman as his “clients.” But with their indictment on charges of foreign influence peddling and campaign finance violation, Giuliani has brought two men accused of outright crimes directly into Trump’s orbit.
Their new lawyer, Trump’s former attorney John Dowd, linked both men directly to Trump in a letter to Congress sent earlier this month.
“Be advised that Messrs. Parnas and Fruman assisted Mr. Giuliani in connection with his representation of President Trump,” Dowd wrote in a letter to the House Intelligence Committee, cautioning that some of their records might be covered by presidential executive privilege.
That link makes both men phenomenally potent potential witnesses in the impeachment hearings against Trump, if they can be compelled to tell what they know, legal experts said.
“It is difficult to overstate the degree of damage Giuliani appears to be inflicting on the President these past few months,” said Joseph Moreno, a former federal prosecutor. “He appears to be a firsthand witness to many of the same issues that Congress is, or soon will be, looking into.”
Cover: In this Aug. 1, 2018 file photo, Rudy Giuliani, an attorney for President Donald Trump, addresses a gathering during a campaign event for Eddie Edwards, who is running for the U.S. Congress, in Portsmouth, N.H.(AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File )