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Ron DeSantis downplayed ties to Giuliani associates. Then we found them hugging.

Florida’s governor has shrugged off past donor controversies. This time, there were photos. Now it’s not going away.
Igor Fruman, hugs Florida Governor elect Ron DeSantis, right, as Lev Parnas looks on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018 in Orlando at the watch party for DeSantis. Fruman and Parnas were arrested last week on campaign finance violations. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Oct. 18
Updated Oct. 18

The pictures show Ron DeSantis leaning in to hug a heavy-set, middle-aged man amid a sea of onlookers.

DeSantis then turns to another man, who wraps his arms around the newly-elected governor at his victory celebration in Orlando.

The two men embraced by DeSantis in these previously unpublished pictures? Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas, the Soviet-born businessmen and Rudy Giuliani associates indicted on charges of interfering in U.S. elections. Obscure until this month, Fruman and Parnas have become major figures in the drama behind the drive to impeach President Donald Trump.

Gov. Ron DeSantis is seen hugging both Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas during Desantis' election night watch party Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018 in Orlando. [CHRIS URSO | Times]

When it was first learned the duo had contributed $50,000 to DeSantis’ campaign last year, the governor’s spokeswoman described Fruman and Parnas as donors who DeSantis didn’t know well — or at all.

The saga may have faded without a word from DeSantis, just like other times that questions about his fundraising threatened his political ascent.

His spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferré first asserted Oct. 10 that Fruman and Parnas “may” have attended GOP events during the 2018 elections, but that DeSantis “does not have a relationship with these individuals.”

Four days later, videos and photos of the men huddled together during DeSantis’ victory party emerged.

Even then, Ferré minimized the presence of the men. When asked about Parnas and Fruman, who helped Trump’s personal attorney, Giuliani, push for investigations in Ukraine of the president’s political opponents, Ferré said that the event was “open to the public.” Yet the pictures show Parnas wearing a badge stating “official guest” and the two standing next to DeSantis’ teacher from his Dunedin grade school days, a fixture at Tampa Bay area campaign events. Ferré later said "donors were likely invited” by his campaign to the party.

After a social media firestorm over the images, DeSantis finally acknowledged Wednesday that he had a more formal relationship.

“I knew Parnas," DeSantis told reporters. “I didn’t know the other guy as much.”

RELATED: Arrested Giuliani associate was at Ron DeSantis’ election night watch party

Yet what DeSantis didn’t know when he offered his first direct explanation was that the Times had reviewed a cache of pictures, stored digitally and forgotten until now, that provided another layer of detail.

The photos, shot by a Tampa Bay Times photographer, show an unmistakable ease between DeSantis and the two men, enough to warrant celebratory hugs.

Still unclear is why these men dropped $50,000 into DeSantis’ campaign account a day before he was endorsed by Trump. In a federal indictment, prosecutors alleged political favors were tied to contributions Parnas and Fruman made in Texas and that they illegally used foreign cash for donations in Nevada.

A Congressional committee investigating Trump has subpoenaed Parnas and Fruman related to the ouster of a United States ambassador to Ukraine. The federal indictment did not mention contributions to DeSantis and other Florida politicians, including Sen. Rick Scott. Ferré said neither DeSantis nor his campaign have been contacted by federal investigators and he never took action on behalf of the men. A spokesman for Scott said the same.

DeSantis ordered his political committee to return the $50,000 donation.

Meanwhile, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak has called for an investigation as his state deals with the fallout from Giuliani’s associates. Parnas and Fruman reportedly sought to enter Nevada’s booming marijuana industry using Russian money and, according to a federal indictment, one made contributions of $10,000 to Republican candidates for governor and attorney general in an illegal effort by foreign interests to influence a state election.

The Miami Herald reported Wednesday that Parnas and Fruman may have sought a foothold into Florida’s lucrative medical marijuana market. As of Friday, DeSantis had not called for an investigation. A lawyer for the men didn’t respond to a request for comment.

In many respects, Parnas and Fruman reflect the pool of people DeSantis turned to when he declared his candidacy as a relatively unknown congressman and Trump ally. Running for governor without the support of Florida’s GOP’s establishment, DeSantis leaned on Trump’s network of financiers, some with backgrounds that likely would have raised red flags in other campaigns.

There was the issue of the $213,000 DeSantis raised from a businessman and Trump supporter whose company reportedly aided unscrupulous debt collectors and phone sex sites for people with rape fantasies. His Republican primary opponent Adam Putnam demanded the donations be returned. DeSantis did not respond.

Nor did DeSantis address the allegations that one of his top fundraisers, Trump friend Elliot Broidy, paid $1.6 million in hush money to a Playboy model he impregnated and that he may have improperly lobbied on behalf of Middle East countries.

And when Florida Democrats called for DeSantis to return donations from a man who called former President Barack Obama an “(expletive) Muslim (n-word)," his campaign said it was too late. The money had already been spent.

Photos of DeSantis and Parnas and Fruman surfaced only weeks after the Times reported that DeSantis’ political team, in a series of brazen memos written earlier this year, planned to sell access to the governor for large donations, including $25,000 to golf with him and $125,000 for one-on-one meetings.

RELATED: Ron DeSantis’ political team planned $25K golf games, $250K ‘intimate gatherings,’ memos say

DeSantis dismissed the story, claiming he had not seen the memos, despite one stating he and his wife had approved the fundraising strategy. Campaign finance records also suggest that elements of the plan were deployed in the form of hefty campaign contributions from lobbyists who played golf with DeSantis in South Florida.

But unlike those cases, evidence continued to spill into public view that contradicted his office’s initial attempts to downplay the contribution from Parnas and Fruman. Keeping the scandal at arm’s length proved impossible when pictures emerged of DeSantis mingling with the burly men, their grins as wide as their open shirt collars.

The Herald also reported that Parnas was involved in two fundraisers for DeSantis, including an intimate Oct. 3 event in a South Florida home and another involving the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr.

Ferré said in future campaigns, DeSantis will “make every effort to ensure that they are better managed and vetted."

Meanwhile, Florida Democrats have demanded more answers, going so far as to file a records request with the governor’s office for any communication with Parnas and Fruman.

“Ukrainian businessmen don’t give the governor $50,000 because they support his Everglades policy," said David Jolly, a former Republican colleague of DeSantis in Congress. “From a candidate’s perspective, you know who is giving you $50,000. Usually it leads to personal interaction on multiple occasions with the donor, it allows for instant recognition when you see that person in a crowd. But it also means inclusion in consequential moments like election night.”

He added: “This begs further inquiry.”

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