A secretly recorded video showing Rudy Giuliani associate Lev Parnas and President Donald Trump discussing getting rid of the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, created a stir when it was released last week.
However, a second conversation between Parnas and Trump at the same April 2018 campaign donors dinner has attracted comparatively little attention.
Parnas bent the president’s ear on marijuana policy and offered Trump a novel suggestion on how he might help Republicans boost their chances in the upcoming midterm elections and drive support among millennial voters: a bipartisan committee on marijuana.
Although that conversation came months before Parnas and other business associates joined forces to invest in marijuana businesses in a number of states across the country, it looks like potentially another case where a Trump donor used his access to lobby the president in favor of personal business interests.
Those efforts were aided by a powerhouse South Florida law firm that Parnas and his partner Igor Fruman turned to for a variety of tasks during their political rise, Greenspoon Marder.
The firm had represented Parnas and Fruman in a number of matters: Defending them in lawsuits, speaking for them to the press, registering businesses across the country and even handling Fruman’s divorce from his wife, Liza Naumova.
The relationship between Parnas and Fruman and the prominent firm, whose clients have included multimillionaire time-share developer David Siegel and rapper Pitbull, came as the historically South Florida-based firm was in the midst of a rapid national expansion, driven largely by its burgeoning cannabis practice.
Over the past decade, the firm has tripled the number of lawyers on its payroll and now has offices in 11 states and Washington, D.C. It acquired a marijuana lobbying firm in Washington, D.C., and created a cannabis-focused political advocacy group in its home state.
And the firm ramped up its political giving, with the firm and its related political groups giving 50 percent more in its home state of Florida in 2018 than it had in any previous cycle, according to state campaign finance records.
But the relationship appears to have now abruptly come to an end. Last week, the firm withdrew as counsel for Parnas and a business partner, David Correia, in a Palm Beach County lawsuit against a real estate development company, citing “irreconcilable differences.”
Monday, the firm requested to drop Parnas and Correia as clients in a federal lawsuit related to a failed movie investment, again citing irreconcilable differences.
The firm declined to comment to the Miami Herald/McClatchy on the divorce.
For the burgeoning cannabis industry, it would be hard to imagine a more powerful ally than someone with the ear of the president.
In the recording of the 2018 meeting, released by Parnas’ lawyer and posted by Buzzfeed, Parnas indicated that he would leave Trump materials on cannabis policy.
“It’s something that’s the future, no matter how you look at it,” Parnas said. “I think you need to be ahead of it and I think you need to control it.”
Parnas and Fruman received the personal attention of one of the firm’s two named partners — Michael Marder— leading some of their rivals in the legal profession scratching their heads about the relationship and who might be paying what would have been hefty legal bills. Parnas had a string of lawsuits over unpaid debts.
The two men’s relationship with the firm wasn’t just business. Parnas’ son Aaron worked there as a summer associate in 2018, according to his LinkedIn page.
Parnas and Fruman’s various alleged schemes in the United States and Ukraine following the 2016 presidential election would ultimately lead to federal campaign finance charges against the pair and two other business associates and contribute to President Trump’s impeachment.
There’s no indication that the firm was involved beyond filing legal paperwork and much of its communication with the pair would probably be protected from scrutiny by attorney-client privilege, although legal experts said that the firm’s privilege wouldn’t apply if it was aware of the pair’s alleged campaign finance crimes.
Marder, on behalf of the firm, declined to respond to a series of detailed questions provided by the Miami Herald/McClatchy about his and the firm’s relationship with Parnas and Fruman.
It isn’t clear when Parnas and Fruman first got connected with the firm.
Public records show that in April of 2017, Michael Marder had begun doing work for Parnas. Marder sent a note threatening the real estate developers Hudson Holdings with a lawsuit related to a proposed business deal between the real estate company and a company run by Parnas and Correia, who is one of Parnas’ co-defendants in the federal indictment.
“We always thought it quite odd that the head of the firm would take such a personal interest in this,” Steven Michael, a managing director of Hudson Holdings, wrote in an email.
As Parnas and Fruman upped their political profile — gaining entree to exclusive events such as the April 2018 dinner— and became embroiled in U.S.-Ukraine foreign policy, the firm was involved in nearly every step along the way.
A lawyer from the firm registered a Delaware business, Global Energy Producers, that the pair used to make a $325,000 donation in May 2018 to the pro-Trump super PAC America First Action.
After the Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint about the donation with the Federal Election Commission in July 2018, alleging that the pair had used the company to conceal the true source of funds, Marder spoke to the news media on the company’s behalf.
“The company is confident that it is in compliance with all relevant campaign finance laws,” Marder, identified as a lawyer for Global Energy Producers, told Bloomberg according to a July 25, 2018, story.
The pair was reportedly planning to use the company for natural gas investments in Ukraine. Their business efforts in Ukraine dovetailed with an effort to remove the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. Parnas criticized her to Trump at the April 2018 dinner — prompting Trump to say, “Get her out tomorrow, take her out.”
Yovanovitch was removed one year later, in May 2019.
At the dinner with Trump, Parnas told the president he wasn’t involved in the cannabis industry.
“I’m not involved in that business,” Parnas said. “But I have a lot of friends that are.”
But if he wasn’t involved in the business then, he would be soon after.
As the Miami Herald previously reported, Parnas and Fruman began reaching out to marijuana contacts in Florida in the spring of 2018 to inquire about investing in one of Florida’s state-issued medical marijuana licenses.
And the federal indictment indicates that Fruman, Parnas and Correia joined forces in July with the Ukrainian-born Andrey Kukushkin and an unnamed Russian businessman who has not been charged, who McClatchy’s reporting shows is likely Andrey Muraviev. The group met in Las Vegas in September 2018 to cement the new partnership.
Kukushkin and Correia created a Nevada company, which they originally named Cannabis Management Group, on Sept 14, 2018. The firm was registered by Greenspoon Marder.
Correia created a table listing potential political candidates to support, according to the indictment, and Muraviev arranged for two $500,000 wire transfers soon after. The political donations would not be in Muraviev’s name because, Kukuskhin said, of “his Russian roots and current political paranoia about it.” Nevada campaign finance records show that Fruman contributed a combined $15,000 on Nov. 1, 2018, to the failed campaigns of two Nevada Republicans, Adam Laxalt, who was running for governor, and Wesley Karl Duncan, who was running for attorney general. Both lost their elections.
Kukushkin and Muraviev, the former head of a Russian cement company and a major investor in the Russian online payment company Qiwi, were involved in a number of other marijuana-related ventures, some tied to Sacramento marijuana mogul Garib Karpateyan. One of the ventures, similarly, involved a secret $1 million investment from Muraviev in a California cannabis management company, with Kukushkin serving as the face of the venture. The investment had gone sour, and Kukushkin and Muraviev sued the owners of the company they had invested in. They were represented in the suit — and other marijuana-related ventures — by a lawyer named Robert Finkle. In February 2019, he joined Greenspoon Marder.
-- This story was written by Ben Wieder and Samantha J. Gross.