By Aram Roston, Karen Freifeld and Polina Ivanova
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – One of two Florida businessmen who helped President Donald Trump's personal lawyer investigate his political rival, Democrat Joe Biden, also works for the legal team of a Ukrainian oligarch facing bribery charges in the United States, according to lawyers of businessmen and the oligarch.
Lev Parnas, one of two associates of Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani, acted as a lawyer translator representing the oligarch Dmytro Firtash. Parnas was arrested Thursday with Florida's other businessman, Igor Fruman, on unrelated charges that included an illegal $ 325,000 channel on a political action committee that supports pro-Trump candidates.
Both men had worked in an unspecified capacity for Firtash before Parnas joined the Ukrainian legal team, according to a person familiar with Florida's men's business with Firtash.
The Floridians' connection to the indicted oligarch Firtash injects an intriguing new character into the drama that unfolds quickly around Trump's impeachment effort.
Democrats in the US House of Representatives have launched the impeachment inquiry, the first step in overthrowing a US president, over allegations that Trump has pressured the Ukrainian president to help investigate Biden, one of the top candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Giuliani was investigating discredited accusations that when Biden, as vice president, sought the resignation of the chief prosecutor of Ukraine to stop the investigation of a gas company in which his son, Hunter Biden, was a board member. Bidens denied the allegations, and Trump's camp produced no evidence to support the claims.
Firtash, one of Ukraine's richest businessmen, is fighting extradition by US authorities on charges of bribery in Vienna, where he has lived for five years.
Illinois federal prosecutors said in court documents in 2017 that Firtash was a "high-ranking" associate of Russian organized crime. He was indicted in 2013 and charged with bribing Indian officials for access to titanium mines. Firtash denied any wrongdoing.
Firtash was "funding" Parnas and Fruman's activities, the source familiar with their business said. The source did not detail his specific work for the oligarch or how much money he had paid them and for how long.
The story goes on
US lawmakers tried to question the pair about their involvement in Giuliani's investigation as part of the impeachment investigation. Giuliani told Reuters in an interview that Parnas and Fruman – US citizens born in Ukraine and Belarus, respectively – helped "find people for me in Ukraine".
For the past few months, Parnas has been working for Firtash legal team Joe DiGenova and Victoria Toensing. The company worked on Firtash's criminal and extradition cases.
"Mr. Parnas was hired by DiGenova & Toensing, LLP as an interpreter to communicate with non-English-speaking client Firtash," the company said in Washington.
A company spokesman said Fruman was not hired. DiGenova and Toensing did not comment further on Firtash's dealings with the two men in response to questions from Reuters.
John Dowd, the lawyer representing Parnas and Fruman, confirmed to Reuters that Parnas had worked for Firtash's legal team as an interpreter. But Dowd also told the US Congress that the two men worked for DiGenova and Toensing.
On October 3, Dowd wrote to Congress that the two men could not provide certain information about Ukraine because they were partially covered by a client lawyer and other legal privileges. Dowd based the privilege claim on the fact that both men helped lawyers DiGenova and Toensing; that they had worked for Giuliani; and that Giuliani had previously represented them in his personal and business affairs.
Dowd's letter did not mention Firtash. He declined to respond to a request to clarify whether one or both of his clients worked for Firtash's legal team.
Parnas's role as interpreter of DiGenova and Toensing was reported on Thursday by the Wall Street Journal.
FLIGHTS TO VIENNA
The person familiar with Parnas and Fruman's business told Reuters that the two were working for Firtash for several months before Parnas joined the Ukrainian tycoon's legal team and that Firtash paid its expenses in the past. Its costs include private jet charters in the United States and trips abroad to Vienna, according to the source, who is familiar with his finances.
Giuliani told Reuters the two men had been to Vienna – where Firtash lives – three to six times in the last two months. Giuliani declined to comment on the reasons for his travels. He said he did not know of any business relationship between Firtash and the two men who helped him investigate Biden.
"They may be involved in business," said Giuliani. "It's possible. I don't know. They may be involved in your defense.
Firtash is a former supporter of ousted Ukrainian pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovich. He made a fortune selling Russian gas to the Kiev government. An Austrian court in June paved the way for his extradition to the United States, but Firtash's legal team is still fighting it.
In an interview with Reuters last month, well before his arrest, Parnas said Firtash had been accused by US prosecutors and diplomats.
“They took an innocent man like Dmytro Firtash and painted him to be this bad Mafia guy, which he obviously isn't. He is one of the most honest entrepreneurs out there. Awesome businessman.
Parnas told Reuters that Firtash was the victim of a cabal he claims to be involved in suppressing the corruption of Joe Biden and his son in Ukraine. "The same people involved," he said. "Same characters."
Parnas declined to comment on the specific work he did for Firtash, referring questions to the oligarch's lawyers, Toensing and DiGenova.
(Reporting by Aram Roston in Washington, Karen Freifeld in New York, and Polina Ivanova in Kiev; Editing by Ross Colvin and Brian Thevenot)