WASHINGTON (AP) — Two Florida businessmen tied to President Donald Trump's lawyer and the Ukraine investigation were charged Thursday with federal campaign finance violations.
The indictment contained the first criminal charges stemming from a July 25 phone call in which Trump asked Ukraine's leader to dig up dirt on Democratic foe Joe Biden and his son. The charges did not suggest wrongdoing by the president, but they are likely to add fuel to the House impeachment inquiry.
Trump has dismissed the inquiry as baseless and politically motivated.
A look at the indictment and its implications:
WHO ARE THESE GUYS?
Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman were businessmen living in Florida. The U.S. citizens, both born in the former Soviet Union, had key roles in Rudy Giuliani's efforts to launch a Ukrainian corruption investigation against Biden and his son Hunter. They were arrested Wednesday night trying to leave country with one-way tickets from Dulles International Airport in Virginia, according to Geoffrey S. Berman, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan. No destination was disclosed.
Two other men, American-born David Correia and Andrey Kukushkin, a Ukrainian-born U.S. citizen, were also charged in the case. Correia remains at large. Kukushkin was arrested at his California home Wednesday and is being held pending a bail hearing to determine whether he is considered a flight risk.
Prosecutors allege that Parnas urged a U.S. congressman to seek the ouster of the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, at the behest of Ukrainian government officials. That happened about the same time last year that Parnas and Fruman committed to raising more than $20,000 for the politician.
The congressman was not identified by name in court papers, but the donations to "Congressman 1" in the indictment match campaign finance reports for former Rep. Pete Sessions, a Texas Republican who lost his re-election bid in November 2018. In May 2018, Parnas posted a photo of himself and Correia, his business partner, with Sessions in his Capitol Hill office, with the caption "Hard at work!!"
Sessions said Thursday he could not confirm that he is "Congressman 1." He said the first meeting with the two men was to discuss energy independence in Ukraine.
The former congressman said the pair made no requests of him. He said he's been friends with Giuliani for 30 years but does not know about his business or legal activities in Ukraine.
In 2016, Russia used hacking and social media campaigns to try to influence the U.S. presidential election. Thursday's indictment shows a different approach. The businessmen are accused of making illegal political contributions, and they attended fundraisers and political events to help their scheme.
LAND OF OPPORTUNITY
According to the indictment, the businessmen saw opportunities in a booming American economy to make a lot of money. Far afield from their efforts to influence U.S. politicians to benefit Ukrainian politicians and interests, they were also willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to gain a foothold in the fledgling U.S. recreational marijuana trade.
HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT
The businessmen were not hiding in the shadows while making secretive deals. They were basking in the limelight. One spoke with reporters, others posted photos on Facebook and touted their relationship with the president's lawyer. The Associated Press reported last week that Parnas and Fruman helped arrange a January meeting in New York between Ukraine's former top prosecutor, Yuri Lutsenko, and Giuliani, as well as other meetings with top government officials.
Giuliani's efforts to launch a Ukrainian corruption investigation were echoed by Trump in his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. That conversation is now at the heart of the impeachment inquiry.
FOLLOWING THE MONEY
Records show that Parnas and Fruman used wire transfers from a corporate entity they controlled to make a $325,000 donation to the America First Action committee in 2018, a pro-Trump PAC. But wire-transfer records that became public through a lawsuit show it was not the true source of the money.
The indictment alleges the men created a corporation, Global Energy Producers, and then made political contributions in that name instead of their own. They are also accused of making contributions to candidates for state and federal office, joint fundraising committees and independent expenditure committees in the names of other people.
The commitment to raise more than $20,000 for the congressman was made in May and June 2018. The lawmaker also received about $3 million in independent expenditures from a super political action committee that Parnas and Fruman had been funding.
THE HOUSE INQUIRY
Federal prosecutors say the case is still being investigated. Meanwhile, the implications are growing for the House impeachment inquiry .
House Democrats subpoenaed Parnas and Fruman on Thursday for documents they have so far refused to produce to three committees. The panels have also subpoenaed Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer.
A whistleblower complaint by an unnamed intelligence official refers to "associates" of Giuliani in Ukraine who were attempting to contact President Zelenskiy's team, though it's not clear that refers to Parnas and Fruman. That could put the two men squarely in the middle of the investigation into Giuliani's activities.
Neumeister reported from New York City. Associated Press Writer Michael Balsamo in Washington contributed to this report.