Over the summer, Dianne and Michael Pues got an ominous phone call from the business partner of a Ukrainian-American entrepreneur who owes the couple more than $500,000 over a movie deal gone bad.
“He said the Ukrainians were upset because we were ‘a dangling participle’ and we needed to make a deal to make them go away,” Diane Pues, who lives in New Jersey with her husband, recounted in a recent interview. “He said we no longer knew who we were dealing with and that the Ukrainians had ties all the way up to the State Department and the White House and they were partners with Rudy Giuliani.”
Working with Giuliani, the White House and the State Department was no idle boast.
The “Ukrainians” are two South Florida businessmen named Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman who on Monday were sent letters by three House committees requesting information as part of an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump.
Parnas and Fruman have recently become major Republican donors — and couriers of what they say is explosive information sourced from Ukraine about widespread corruption involving Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, American diplomats and Ukrainian officials. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer and a former New York City mayor, has been their conduit to the Trump administration.
On Monday, three House committees subpoenaed Giuliani for documents relating to his efforts in Ukraine. They also sent letters to Parnas, Fruman and a third man, Semyon Kislin, “seeking documents and noticing depositions.”
Before the scandal became a cable-news fixture, the exploits of Parnas and Fruman caught the admiring eye of Trump, as well as right-wing pundits and politicians who amplified their material. A government whistleblower complaint — one that led House Democrats last week to open the impeachment inquiry — cited media reports detailing Parnas and Fruman’s work introducing Giuliani to Ukrainian officials, although the two men weren’t mentioned by name.
Experts on Ukrainian politics have largely debunked the accusations against Biden and others as conspiracy theories. Even the Ukrainian prosecutor who originally brought attention to the matter has walked back some of his claims. The prosecutor, Yuri Lutsenko, was introduced to Giuliani thanks to Fruman and Parnas, according to media accounts and interviews.
To Dianne and Michael Pues, it’s no surprise Parnas has helped inject a stream of apparent misinformation into the public discourse.
“Mr. Parnas is a con man, he is a crook,” Dianne Pues said. “He conned us from day one.”
Their relationship with Parnas dates back to 2010, long before the South Florida businessman rose to a position that could see House investigators start asking questions about him and Fruman. Parnas solicited Michael Pues for a $350,000 bridge loan to help finance a movie called “Anatomy of an Assassin,” according to a lawsuit filed in 2011. Parnas even arranged a dinner with Jack Nicholson, court records state. But he never paid the money back. Five years later, a judge in New York federal court ruled that Parnas owed more than $500,000 to a Pues family trust. Tracking down Parnas to enforce the judgment has been a Herculean labor, according to court records and an attorney representing the trust in Florida, where the couple is now pursuing the case. Parnas’ failure to pay has left them in a precarious situation.
“He financially ruined us,” Dianne Pues said. “Our lives have not been the same since the day we met him.”
A trail of lawsuits left in Parnas’ wake suggests she’s not the only one feeling burnt. (Michael Pues declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Parnas has been sued over everything from a small-claims debt owed to a furniture maker in Delray Beach to unpaid legal bills to a $100,000 loan issued to a natural gas firm he runs with Fruman. The plaintiff in the latter case also alleged that Parnas and Fruman “boasted” about their close relationships with major figures in the GOP.
In 2014, Parnas and his wife were evicted from a $15,000-per-month, six-bedroom house in Boca Raton, court records show. Separately, his business, Fraud Guarantee, was ordered to pay more than $26,000 to its landlord. His career as a securities broker saw him work for three brokerages that were expelled from the industry by regulators. In Florida, he has dabbled in everything from stocks to real estate to consumer electronics to hyperbaric chambers — machines for treating decompression sickness, a hazard of scuba diving — corporate records show.
Parnas says he’s done nothing wrong in business or politics and the information he’s gathered from Ukraine is of vital national importance. He did not respond to messages this week but said in a previous interview that he planned to counter-sue Dianne and Michael Pues.
“The truth is going to come out about that judgment,” he said.
As for his various business disputes, he remarked, “I don’t know anybody that has only good in their business. ... I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon. I had a rough time in 2008. That makes me a bad person?”
At the same time he and Fruman have faced lawsuits over unpaid debts, the two men and their natural gas company, Global Energy Producers, have donated more than $400,000 to Republican candidates and committees supporting them in federal elections. A $325,000 donation to a pro-Trump super PAC was the subject of a complaint from a nonpartisan watchdog group.
Fruman runs an import/export business and a boutique hotel in Odessa, Ukraine, according to a profile by Buzzfeed. He also invested in a milk-canning plant in Ukraine that went bankrupt after going nearly $25 million in debt.
He has not responded to messages. David Correia, the business partner who made the call to Michael and Dianne Pues, could not be reached. He works with Parnas at Fraud Guarantee.
The two South Florida residents — Parnas lives in Boca Raton, Fruman owns property in Sunny Isles Beach — have had discussions both with officials in Ukraine and the United States, raising questions about whether they should register as foreign agents. Giuliani has described the two men as legal clients and been photographed with them in the company of the president. His efforts to retrieve dirt from Ukraine have been blessed by President Trump, Giuliani says, and coordinated with the State Department. On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was on the phone with Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy when Trump asked his counterpart to investigate Biden. The call helped form the basis of the whistleblower complaint.
Parnas was asked by the House to appear for a deposition on Oct. 10, according to a copy of the letter. Fruman was asked to appear the next day.
The committees seek a wide range of information, including documents and communications relating to Giuliani, Trump, Attorney General William Barr and other administration figures, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, Biden’s son Hunter and Ukrainian officials and businesspeople, as well as the source of funds for their political contributions.
“The Committees are prepared to work cooperatively with you to obtain this information,” the letters state. “Please let us know by 5:00 pm on October 1, 2019 whether you intend to voluntarily comply with the Committees’ request, or whether the Committees should pursue alternative means to obtain the information.”
Kislin, the third man who received a letter, told the Miami Herald Tuesday he intends to comply with the House’s request.
“Of course. I have to,” he said.
The Daily Beast described K as “a businessman and philanthropist often identified with the Russian émigré community of Brighton Beach in Brooklyn” and involved in Giuliani’s Ukraine work.
He referred all the Herald’s other questions to his lawyer.
At the center of the purported scandal is the fact that Hunter Biden served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company while his father was vice president and had purview over the Obama administration’s Ukraine policy. That presents issues of nepotism and the appearance of a conflict of interest.
But then the conspiracy theories kick in. Chief among them: Joe Biden sought to have Ukraine’s top prosecutor fired in order to forestall an investigation of his son’s company. In fact, the investigation had fallen dormant under that prosecutor. Biden’s efforts to replace him, supported by many other countries, international organizations and anti-corruption activists, actually might have made it more likely the company and his son could come under scrutiny.
And Lutsenko, the former Ukrainian prosecutor who met with Giuliani in New York City and Warsaw thanks to Parnas and Fruman, has said he did not uncover evidence of wrongdoing by Hunter Biden. “From the perspective of Ukrainian legislation, he did not violate anything,” Lutsenko told the Washington Post.
Over the weekend, Trump’s former homeland security adviser, Thomas Bossert, told ABC’s This Week that another allegation spread by Giuliani and the president in his now-disclosed call with the new Ukraine leader — that a Democratic National Committee server was hosted in Ukraine and is somehow tied to a hack attributed to Russia — is patently false.
“It’s not only a conspiracy theory, it is completely debunked,” Bossert said.
The use of Giuliani — via Fruman and Parnas — as an emissary to a foreign government is not unprecedented but is unusual. For example, Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt both had private emissaries involved in global peace talks.
“I think what’s worrying is that he [Giuliani] wasn’t tasked with carrying out secret negotiations to advance the interests of the country, but he was effectively acting as an arm of Trump’s reelection campaign,” said Jeff Mankoff, an expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, specializing in Russia and neighbors. “A closer analogy to all this might be CREEP — the Committee for the Re-election of the President — under Nixon, which has involved in all the shenanigans.”
It’s not clear how Giuliani first cemented a relationship with the two South Florida men pulled into the Trump impeachment. The relationship, however, appeared to deepen this past spring when the two men brought Giuliani to the gala dinner of the National Council of Young Israel, a Jewish communal group that is increasingly involved in partisan politics.
The March 31 gala dinner featured House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., as the keynote speaker. Republican National Committee Co-Chairman Tommy Hicks Jr. received the Guardian of Israel Award. Fruman and Parnas were each honored with the Chovevei Zion Award, or Lovers of Zion Award.
At least one leader of the group is now seeking distance from the men.
“Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman are philanthropists. That was my relationship to them. I was trying to do fundraising, pure and simple,” explained Dr. Joseph Frager, 1st vice president of Young Israel and co-chair of the gala event. “They brought Rudy Giuliani to the National Council of Young Israel Dinner.”
But McClatchy and the Miami Herald learned that Frager, a New York area gastroenterologist, had actually hosted the three in his home.
Contacted again, Frager said that Parnas and Fruman brought Guiliani to the grave of Menachem Schneerson, the leader of the Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch movement.
“They needed a place to go for a light meal afterward. My home was not far from the Ohel [grave]. I offered to have them come to my home that evening,” said Frager. “It was a group of about 20 people that came to my home that evening. All of this was done to enable additional fundraising.”
Asked if the group will revisit how it came to honor Parnas and Fruman, Frager said Young Israel expects to put out a statement after the Jewish New Year holiday, which ends Tuesday.
“I am deeply disturbed by what I have been reading,” Frager said.
The group’s president, Farley Weiss, did not respond to calls and emails requesting comment. His law office said he was observing the Jewish New Year and would not likely comment until after the period of observation ended late Tuesday.
While Parnas has a long trail of lawsuits, less is known about Fruman. However, a lengthy court docket shows a messy divorce from model Yelyzaveta Naumova. She did not respond to phone calls.
Divorce records are often sealed, but their separation has been before the courts since December 2017. Fruman sought several orders for drug testing on his wife, and she sought via subpoena details of his finances and bank accounts. In addition to fighting over custody, the couple was fighting over a Collins Avenue luxury condo with a $3 million mortgage.
Among those receiving subpoenas were Oleksandr Kurinnyi, a cryptocurrency entrepreneur.
-- Nicholas Nehamas and Kevin G. Hall wrote this story