WASHINGTON — When two Rudy Giuliani associates were arrested last week and charged with funneling foreign money into political campaigns, two big questions lingered: Which foreigners were they working for, and what was their ultimate goal?
There are growing indications that a Ukrainian-backed oligarch who is fighting extradition to the United States figures in the answers.
The evidence is emerging from the mists of a complicated story.
The indicted pair, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, were helping Rudy Giuliani hunt for dirt on Donald Trump's political opponents in Ukraine, even as they were also pitching potential partners on a business deal with Ukraine's gas company.
Oligarch Dmytro Firtash appears to be linked to both efforts.
Parnas and Fruman were advocating on his behalf as they pitched a natural gas deal, according to an American executive briefed on the meeting. And Firtash produced a document that Giuliani has used to attack former Vice President Joe Biden.
The oligarch has been engaged in a long-running legal battle with the U.S. government, fighting extradition to the U.S. on federal bribery charges. He badly wants the case dismissed, and therefore has an interest in currying favor with the Trump administration.
On Monday, NBC News reported that the Justice Department has yet to answer a question posed by a Republican senator, Roger Wicker of Mississippi, about why Firtash has not been extradited from Austria to face the U.S. charges.
In an interview with NBC News on Monday, Giuliani said he has "nothing to do with Firtash," and he said he never spoke to Trump about the Firtash case.
"I'm not even sure the president is aware of him," Giuliani said. "I think if you asked the president, 'Who is Dmytro Firtash?' He would say 'I don't know.' As far as I know, we've never discussed him."
The same may not be true for Giuliani's associates, however. In March, at a meeting in Houston, Parnas and Fruman mentioned Firtash as they made a proposal to an official of Ukraine's natural gas company, according to Dale Perry, an American gas executive who does business in Ukraine and was briefed on the meeting. Perry told NBC News the pair was urging that the gas company pay Firtash a debt of more than $200 million that Firtash believes he is owed by the company.
Though the meeting has been described in news accounts, that element has not previously been reported, and it raises the question of whether Firtash had a business arrangement with Parnas and Fruman. His lawyer says he did not.
Yet Firtash, still a major player in Ukraine's gas sector, stood to benefit handsomely from the plan Parnas and Furman were proposing.
At the same time, the oligarch was playing a key role in the effort by Parnas, Fruman and Giuliani to hunt for dirt on Donald Trump's political opponents in Ukraine.
Firtash's lawyers in Vienna were the ones who obtained an affidavit from a fired Ukrainian prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, that Giuliani and other Trump allies have used as a basis to accuse Biden of corruption. Shokin is the prosecutor whom then Vice President Joe Biden urged be removed, in keeping with U.S. policy at the time that viewed him as a bad actor.
A lawyer for Parnas and Fruman declined to comment. Fruman was released on bond Wednesday, while Parnas remains in federal custody.
The lawyer, former Trump attorney John Dowd, said in a letter October 3 to the House intelligence committee that his clients "assisted Mr. Giuliani in connection with his representation of President Trump," and "have also been represented by Mr. Giuliani in connection with their personal and business affairs."
'That's a crock'
A lawyer for Firtash, Victoria Toensing, told NBC News the oligarch was not in business with Parnas and Fruman. "That's a crock," she said.
Toensing did acknowledge a financial tie between Firtash and Parnas, through her. She says she brought Parnas to the Firtash legal team as a paid translator.
Reuters was first to report Parnas’s link to Firtash.
A source familiar with Firtash's operation said Firtash, who lives in Vienna, questioned that account, noting that Firtash has a large staff that includes excellent professional translators. "Never was there a need for a translator," the source said. Toensing responded that Parnas was her personal translator in legal matters because she needed her own.
Toensing and her husband, Joe diGenova, were talking about Ukraine and Trump long before they began representing Firtash in July. Once briefly considered for a role as Trump's personal lawyers in the Russia investigation, they say they sought to represent "Ukrainian whistleblowers" who had information about misdeeds by Democrats, including Vice President Biden. They said they were blocked from going to Ukraine by the then-U.S. ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch, whom Toensing said "we all wanted to get rid of."
But Firtash was able to help Trump try to discredit the Bidens, through the Shokin affidavit, which the former prosecutor said he made "at the request of lawyers acting for Dmytro Firtash."
The president's allies have used it as a weapon.
"I have an affidavit here…that nobody bothered to read from the gentleman who was fired, Viktor Shokin, the so-called corrupt prosecutor," Giuliani said on ABC's This Week Sept. 29. "The Biden people say that he wasn't investigating Hunter Biden at the time. He says under oath that he was."
In fact, the September affidavit didn't say that Hunter Biden was under investigation. It says, without evidence, that Biden forced Shokin's removal because he refused to stop his investigation into Burisma, the firm that put Hunter Biden on its board. Ukrainian officials have since said that investigation already had been closed. U.S. officials say Biden was articulating longstanding U.S. policy, which advocated Shokin's removal for alleged corruption.
The affidavit is not the only example of Firtash's involvement in efforts sympathetic to Trump.
Firtash's legal team also has alleged that a prosecutor for Robert Mueller's office, Andrew Weissmann, offered to drop the corruption case against Firtash if the oligarch helped in the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.
Weissmann did not respond to a request for comment. A source directly familiar with the matter says there was nothing inappropriate about the negotiations, which amounted to a prosecutor seeking help from a potential witness in a legal jam — something that happens every day in the American legal system. In the end, there was no Mueller deal with Firtash, the source said.
On Sept. 29, Chris Wallace of Fox News reported that "according to a top U.S. official," diGenova and Toensing worked with Giuliani "off the books…to get oppo research on Biden," and that only Trump knew what they were doing.
Toensing and DiGenova disputed that they shared the information with Trump.
The bribery case
Firtash was indicted in 2014 for what federal prosecutors in the Northern District of Illinois allege was his role in bribing Indian officials in order to get a lucrative mining deal to sell titanium to the Boeing Company. He was arrested in Vienna in March 2014, released on $174 million bail, and has been contesting his extradition to the U.S. ever since.
Federal prosecutors said in a 2017 filing that Firtash and his co-defendant in the alleged scheme, Andras Knopp, "have been identified by United States law enforcement as two upper-echelon associates of Russian organized crime."
In August 2016, NBC News reported that in 2008, according to court records, then Trump aide Paul Manafort's firm was involved with Firtash in a plan to redevelop a famous New York hotel, the Drake. Firtash's company planned to invest over $100 million, the records say.
That same year, Firtash acknowledged to the U.S. ambassador in Ukraine that he got his start in business with the permission of a notorious Russian crime lord, according to a classified State Department cable. Other U.S. cables say Firtash made part of his fortune through sweetheart natural gas deals between Russia and the Ukraine. Mark Corallo, a spokesman for Toensing and diGenova, told NBC News the allegations in the Wicker letter are "false, disparaging and defamatory."
It is the gas business that links Firtash to what the two Giuliani associates were trying to do for personal profit, even as they were working with Giuliani to dig up dirt on Biden in Ukraine, according to Perry. Firtash for years has owned upwards of 70 percent of Ukraine's gas distribution network, and he still runs it from Vienna.
"Firtash still controls intermediaries in the Ukrainian gas industry," Wicker wrote in his letter to the U.S. attorney general in 2018. "Firtash accepts the gas and sells to end-users, but he refuses to pay Naftogaz and pockets the revenue. This scheme is estimated to have cost Ukraine $2 billion thus far."
Perry and another source told NBC News that Parnas and Fruman were trying to make money by drumming up a deal to sell liquefied natural gas to Ukraine's big state energy company, and to oust the management at the company with help from their friends in the Trump administration.
During that time, federal prosecutors said in last week's indictment, the pair was also engaged in an illegal scheme to funnel money into political campaigns, including a Super PAC that supports Trump, in order to "buy potential influence" and advance their business interests.
The indictment says that that Parnas and Fruman, along with their co-conspirators, hid the scheme from the candidates and campaigns to which they donated.
But there are questions about where the money came from. Court records show Parnas left a trail of debts, including a $500,000 judgment against him involving a failed movie venture. In 2014, Parnas and his wife were evicted from a $15,000-per-month, six-bedroom house in Boca Raton, the Miami Herald reported, citing court records. Separately, his business, Fraud Guarantee, was ordered to pay more than $26,000 to its landlord.
That same business paid Giuliani $500,000 in recent years for security advice, Giuliani now says, adding that he can prove the money came from the United States.
Parnas and Fruman, both born in the former Soviet Union, boasted of their connections to Giuliani and the White House when they invited an executive at Ukraine's Naftogaz gas company, Andrew Fovorov, for a meeting in Houston in March, where they made their pitch, the sources said.
As NBC News reported October 17, they told Fovorov that they wanted Naftogaz CEO Andriy Kobolev removed and Fovorov to take his place, the sources said. Kobolev had won high praise from U.S. and European officials for his anti-corruption efforts.
The two told Fovorov that "they would promote him to replace the current CEO," said a source familiar with the discussions. They would do that, they said, if he supported their plan to sell American natural gas to Ukraine — a plan that has significant logistical hurdles, the sources said.
As part of the arrangement, Parnas and Fruman told Fovorov he would need to make sure Naftogaz paid Firtash hundreds of millions of dollars he says he is owed by the company, said Perry, who said he spoke to Fovorov in detail about the matter. Fovorov has not responded to inquiries.
Firtash and Kobolev have been at odds for years over Firtash's position in the Ukrainian natural gas market.
Kobolev has been credited with cleaning up corruption at the state energy company and has repeatedly demanded that the Ukraine government scrap a decree that allows for huge payments to Firtash's network, but to no avail.
For Firtash, Kobolev is a major obstacle to extending his empire, and his removal as CEO at Naftogaz would have reaped big rewards, according to U.S. diplomats and other sources familiar with the energy industry.
At the same time Parnas and Fruman were working with Giuliani in Ukaine, Kobolev expressed fears that the independence of Naftogaz was again under threat and anti-corruption efforts could be in jeopardy.
In a Feb. 8 interview with the Kyiv Post, Kobolev cited plans by the then government to weaken the authority of the board overseeing Naftogaz and hand back power to politicians to choose the firm's management.
If political meddling resumes, "everything that has been achieved so far can be destroyed," he told the paper.
NBC News efforts to reach Kobolev were unsuccessful.
In talking points included in federal lobbying filings in March, Naftogaz management argued that the campaign to replace them "would quickly result in the reestablishment of corrupt schemes in the natural gas sector, redirecting funds out of the company, away from the state budget, and into the pockets of individuals like Dmytro Firtash."
Ukrainian courts eventually blocked the government's bid to strip authority from the board.
In the Houston meeting, Parnas and Fruman also predicted that the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, would soon be forced out of her job by the White House, and that would help open the way to their proposed deal, according to Perry and the other individual familiar with the meeting.
In May she was recalled, and now she is a key witness in the House impeachment inquiry of Trump over efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.