2 Giuliani associates plead not guilty in campaign finance scheme

Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman were carrying one-way tickets to Vienna when they were arrested at Dulles Airport outside of Washington D.C. on Oct. 9.
Image: Rudy Giuliani has coffee with Ukrainian-American businessman Lev Parnas at the Trump International Hotel in Washington on Sept. 20, 2019.
Rudy Giuliani has coffee with Ukrainian-American businessman Lev Parnas at the Trump International Hotel in Washington on Sept. 20, 2019.Aram Roston / Reuters file

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By Tom Winter and Rich Schapiro

Two associates of Rudy Giuliani linked to the Ukraine scandal pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges of funneling money from foreign entities to U.S. candidates in a plot to buy political influence.

Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman were carrying one-way tickets to Vienna when they were arrested at Dulles Airport outside of Washington, D.C., on Oct. 9.

"Many false things have been said about me and my family," Parnas said outside Manhattan Federal Court after he and Fruman pleaded not guilty to four counts related to violating campaign finance laws.

"I look forward to defending myself vigorously in court, and I'm certain that in time the truth will be revealed and I will be vindicated."

The foreign-born Florida men were charged with making $325,000 in illegal straw donations to a Trump super PAC, as well as giving $15,000 to a second committee among a flurry of political donations intended to help them advance the interests of a Ukrainian government official and a Russian national seeking to break into the cannabis industry.

New York federal prosecutors say Parnas and Fruman engaged in a scheme with a Ukrainian official, identified by NBC News as former chief prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko, to oust the then-U.S. ambassador in Ukraine.

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The removal of the former ambassador Marie Yovanovitch in May is now at the center of the impeachment inquiry by House Democrats, who accuse President Donald Trump of abusing his power by pressuring Ukraine to launch an investigation of Joe Biden, his political rival, and Biden's son.

Giuliani is not named in the court documents but he has previously said Parnas and Fruman assisted him in the Ukrainian plot.

The Giuliani team saw Yovanovitch as an obstacle to their objectives — digging up derogatory information on former vice president Biden and smoothing the way for a possible natural gas deal in Ukraine, former officials previously told NBC News.

In court Wednesday, federal prosecutor Rachel Donaleski said investigators have conducted searches of "multiple premises" as part of the probe. Parnas's lawyer, Edward McMahon, raised the possibility that the evidence gathered by the investigators could raise issues related to executive privilege given the links between Parnas, Giuliani and Trump.

"He worked for Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Giuliani worked for the president," McMahon said.

Donelski said her team was prepared to handle any such issues. "We're aware of those privilege issues. We have a filter team in place and we've had a filter team in place," she said.

Parnas, who is Ukrainian, was released on a $1 million bond secured on $200,000 cash. Fruman, who is from Belarus, was released on a $1 million bond secured by $100,000 cash and his Florida condo valued at $900,000.

The pair are also accused of participating in a scheme that involved making political donations funded by an unidentified foreign national who was nervous about his "his Russian roots and current political paranoia about it,” according to the indictment.

The purpose of those donations was to help gain access to recreational marijuana licenses so that they could form a marijuana business in Nevada, the indictment said. The venture never came to fruition, according to prosecutors.

In May 2018, the two men gave $325,000 to the pro-Trump super PAC America First Action through an LLC, Global Energy Producers, the group confirmed to NBC News. That same month, Parnas posted photos on Facebook showing he and Fruman with Trump and the president's oldest son, Donald Trump Jr.

Fruman and Parnas' co-defendants, David Correia and Andrey Kukushkin, were arraigned last week and pleaded not guilty to one count of conspiracy.