Skip To Content
BuzzFeed News Home Reporting To You

Impeachment Today Podcast: Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Lev Parnas

Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter Mike Sallah explains everything you need to know about Giuliani allies Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman.

Posted on November 11, 2019, at 10:43 p.m. ET

Alex Edelman / Getty Images

Rudy Giuliani, right, and Lev Parnas, left, arrive for the funeral of late US President George H.W. Bush on December 5, 2018.

It's Monday, November 11th, 2019, 48 days since House Democrats began impeachment proceedings. Every morning, the Impeachment Today podcast helps you separate what’s real and groundbreaking from what’s just, well, bullshit.

In today's episode: an eventful weekend saw a preview of how Lev Parnas, one of Rudy Giuliani's go-to men on Ukraine, plans to testify about the whole affair. Shock development: it doesn't look great for Rudy! And we have one of the world's leading Lev Parnas experts with us today: Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter Mike Sallah, who'll explain everything you need to know about Parnas and his equally lively colleague, Igor Fruman.

You can listen to today's episode below, or check it out on on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.


It's Monday, November 11th, 2019, 48 days into the impeachment inquiry and this is Impeachment Today. Good morning, I'm Hayes Brown, a reporter and editor at BuzzFeed News. Did you think things would be chill since our last episode? Of course, you didn't because this is our lives now. We've got a great show for you today. We asked last week what's your most curious about when it comes to impeachment and you guys delivered. We'll be taking a listen to some of those and give the best response we can later in the episode.

We're also looking into two shady characters who are helping Rudy Giuliani in Ukraine, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman. We've got BuzzFeed News senior investigations editor, the Pulitzer Prize winning Mike Sallah on today to talk about them. But before we get to all of that, let's catch up on what happened over the weekend. Okay. We've got a lot to cover this morning since a bunch of plot lines have collided since Friday. A lawyer for Rudy Giuliani's associate left Parnas on Sunday night, previewed the story Parnas is ready to tell impeachment investigators.

Parnas claims that back in May he delivered a warning to an aid to Ukraine's then president Oleks Zelenksy. Ukraine had two choices. A, open two investigations, one into a company associated with Joe Biden's son Hunter, and another into alleged conspiracies involving the 2016 US election. Or B, US military aid halts and vice president Mike Pence skips Zelensky's inauguration. Parnas will say he gave that warning on Giuliani's orders.

Well, the aid was halted and Pence did skip the inauguration. And if the things Parnas pushed sound familiar, that's because it's exactly what Donald Trump asks Zelensky for during a phone call in July. Now, Parnas has some potential credibility issues, as we'll talk about later. The other people in the meeting denied the details of Parnas's story, and Giuliani says he didn't give Parnas any order to give any threat. But if born out Parnas's claim would provide a clear link from the president to the actions of a back channel campaign that numerous current and former officials have detailed to Congress.

House Democrats released two more transcripts laying out that campaign on Friday. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman and Dr. Fiona Hill have served on Trump's national security council as Russia and Ukraine experts. Hill resign in July, Vindman still works in the white House. Vindman was on the July call and reported his many concerns soon afterwards. Hill described at least one meeting where one of the members of Giuliani's off the books pressure campaign directly laid out the quid pro quo between aiding investigations. Now on Sunday, representative Mac Thornberry of Texas was one of several Republicans making this argument.

Mac Thornberry:

I believe that it is inappropriate for a president to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political rival. Now, it leads to a question, if there's a political rival with a family member who's involved in questionable activity, what do you do? Just let them alone, but set that aside. I believe it was inappropriate. I do not believe it was impeachable.

Hayes Brown:

Trump is not a fan. He tweeted, "Republicans don't be led into the fool's trap of saying it was not perfect, but is not impeachable. No it is much stronger than that. Nothing was done wrong." A convincing rebuttal. Meanwhile, house Republicans submitted to Democrats their list of dream witnesses in the upcoming impeachment hearings. Among those were Hunter Biden, his business partners, the whistleblower, and everyone the whistleblower talked to when writing their complaint.

Democrats took one look at this list and basically went, "Are you high?" Importantly, their quest showed a willingness among the house GOP leadership to veer ever closer to embracing conspiracies in defense of the president. And finally, here's a dramatic twist. Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney is joining a lawsuit against congressional leaders and president Trump. He's trying to get a judge to rule on whether he has to obey a congressional subpoena or a White House order to ignore it.

That case had been dead in the water until Mulvaney's last second tagging on Friday. Multiple officials have testified that Mulvaney was key in holding the aid to Ukraine that is at the heart of the inquiry. And now for those who just have a thing for numbers, we have our reading from our own Nixometer.

Our 1 to 10 scale goes from a normal day in a normal White house to Richard Nixon resigning and flying away in a helicopter. This Monday we're starting off at a 7. That seems high, but this feels like a make or break week on both sides of the house. Democrats need their case to break through to the public. Republicans need to come up with a defense. With things this tense, who knows what the reading will be by Friday. Okay. After this break, we have Mike Sallah to talk about Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman. Stick around.

All right, friends, it's time for This Fucking Guy, where we zoom in on a person, place or thing that's shaping the impeachment saga. Today we're actually going to be talking about these fucking guys, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman. To give us the low down on these Eastern Europeans embroiled in the impeachment imbroglio is BuzzFeed News senior investigations editor in DC, Mike Sallah. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Mike Sallah:

Hey, it's glad to be here.

HB:

You were one of the first reporters to really ask, "Wait, who are these two dudes who seem to be connected to Rudy Giuliani?" How did you first clue in that something weird was happening here?

MS:

Good question. Well, I think it started when we got a call from our counterpart reporter in Kiev who said, "I have something interesting here. I am working at two people who are involved in something with mayor Giuliani and they are at a hookah bar. One of them is sitting down and a woman is draped over him and they seem to be enjoying themselves. Should I keep an eye on them?" I said, "Absolutely. Follow through, let me start researching their background."

MS:

So as I started, we call it pulling paper on them on my end, I always say all roads lead to South Florida. And they were two, Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas had deep Florida roots, no surprise. And as I started to look at the court file involving Parnas, I realize this was a financial train wreck. This guy had had multiple judgements against him. He had evictions from luxury homes and I said to myself, "Okay, these are the two people involved with mayor Giuliani, let's figure out more."

HB:

Right.

MS:

And we started just pulling more and the deeper we got, we realized that they were involved in a deep back channel campaign that was being run by the mayor.

HB:

So let's back up a little then. As far as you can tell, how did these guys connect first with each other and then with Rudy Giuliani who... What?

MS:

Igor and Lev knew each other from years earlier. They're both from the former Soviet Union. One was born in Odessa, the other one was born in Belarus and their families knew each other. So in time they started just basically seeing each other at various clubs in South Florida, other places, and they started doing business together. That was probably four years ago that they actually became serious together as business partners. And then with mayor Giuliani, these gentlemen started giving out a lot of money to GOP campaigns. It started in early 2018 for them to be able to make their big rise within the party. They needed to give out a lot of money.

HB:

Right.

MS:

And so Igor Fruman mortgaged one of his properties, a very high end, nice piece of real estate in Palm Harbor, Florida. And out of that they had a least a million dollars in the bank to start giving money to GOP campaigns.

HB:

Right. And then Rudy gets involved, I'm assuming because he gets linked into them through the spending and eventually he gets signed on according to reports with Parnas's company called Fraud Guarantee, which is the best name for any company ever in this whole situation.

MS:

Yeah, you can't make this stuff up. Fraud Guarantee was a company started by Lev Parnas after a long and very checkered past as a stock trader. He starts his company that basically does due diligence for investors and provides insurance for them in the event that they are defrauded. And that was the basis of his company. And he eventually gets mayor Giuliani on as his consultant and they turn over a half a million dollars to mayor Giuliani to help them advance their company.

HB:

That's so much money for a company that apparently didn't have any clients. Speaking of the money that's being thrown around, the two of them, Parnas and Fruman, were arrested last month at JFK airport with one way tickets out of the country. They were charged on campaign finance violations. What's the deal with that? Who were they giving that money to?

MS:

Okay, well the most controversial of all of those campaign contributions dealt with money that they gave to these campaigns in Nevada. They had a marijuana business together.

HB:

Of course, they did.

MS:

Yes. And they were trying to basically win approval for their program out there and also get it licensed so that they could expand. And their plan was to expand into five different States. So it starts with campaign contributions to the gubernatorial candidate and the attorney general candidate for Nevada. The money they used, it came from a Russian national who was unidentified in the indictment. You can't use foreign money to fund American campaigns.

HB:

Right.

MS:

It's against the law, it's a felony. Those are two of the charges against them. And then there were other monies they gave $325000 to a Trump aligned SuperPAC called America First Action. And the problem with that donation was that it came from a wire, very controversial, but let's just say the money itself was put in the name of a company they founded. And the reality was the company had no funds or anything.

HB:

So it was a shell company sort of situation. It was like, "Okay, the money comes from these people," but it actually came from another source entirely.

MS:

That's correct. And so that's where they got in trouble. They each are charged with four different counts of felony. They can be imprisoned for up to five years for each one.

HB:

Where does the Republican congressmen that they were giving money to fit into all of this? Is that part of the charges as well?

MS:

There was a meeting they had with Pete Sessions, the former Congressman from Texas. And they leaned on him very heavily about removing the US ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch.

HB:

Right.

MS:

And getting her out of the way would allow them to do a lot of what they wanted to get done in Ukraine. So they leaned on very heavily, that very day wrote a letter to Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, saying, "I think she should be terminated." And of course, eventually she was. And so they got them and then they both paid Sessions, $2700 pieces, the limits you can give as an individual contribution to a congressional candidate.

HB:

Right. So that's not what they're charged for, but it is part of this whole plot to get Yovanovitch-

MS:

It's correct.

HB:

... out of office where they had their own interest in getting her out. Giuliani did, and so did Ukraine. Okay. So they were charged. But then last week Parnas's lawyer said that Parnas was willing to work with congressional investigators on the impeachment inquiry and he said, I can't believe this, part of Parnas's decision was because Trump claims, to quote Mariah Carey, "I don't know her." Did he know her? Did Trump and Parnas actually know each other?

MS:

Yes, they did. I can tell you that I've interviewed Lev Parnas, probably more than any journalist. I've sat down with him, I've had nearly a dozen interviews with him before all this happened. So I can tell you that he does know President Trump. He's been to Mar-a-Lago many times. He's had dinner with the president at Trump International Hotel, he's met with him in Washington. To say he doesn't know him is almost like saying, "I don't know my vice president." He does know Lev Parnas.

HB:

I can see how that would sting. So really quickly, a moment to focus on poor Fruman. Igor has really been painted as sort of the sidekick in this affair. Do you see that as being accurate?

MS:

Yes it is. It's closer to being accurate than not. And I'll tell you why. Because Lev Parnas is really the muscle and the color and the push behind all these efforts. Igor funds much of this development and Igor's money paid for much of what they did in addition to other people's as well. But it wasn't Lev Parnas's money, it was Igor Fruman's. Igor is more of the money man, and he's basically gone along for the ride.

HB:

God, there's so many more areas where we can touch on weird things and weird connections between these two and the rest of the players in this impeachment saga. But unfortunately, we can't spend the entire show about them, so we're just going to jump a year forward into the future. We're in 2020 just after the US election, what are Parnas and Fruman up to in your opinion?

MS:

I think there's either one or two things. Either both of them are going to end up becoming serious witnesses to where they will not have to spend a lot of time in prison, or they're not going to cooperate and they will. I do believe the Southern district of New York has additional charges ready to be levied against them and I do believe it's really up to them as to how much they want to participate and help in this ongoing investigation. I don't believe they're going to be, shall we say out there running businesses again real soon. I think it's going to be awhile.

HB:

All right Mike, thank you so much for helping us wrap our head around these two really bizarre characters in this whole thing. Before we let you go, it's time for the segment that we call The Kicker, where we ask our guests to bring in a tweet, a quote, a headline, a something that really puts a bow on where we are in this moment. So Mike, what do you got?

MS:

Well, I think it's interesting. One of the things we didn't talk about was Lev Parnas left a lot of burned investors in his wake in Fraud Guarantee. While the company didn't have a lot of capital or clients, it had a lot of burned investors. In addition to that, there were many people that loaned him money over the years and one man is still owed about a half a million dollars. And so desperate was he to finally get paid, he had his lawyer go to the federal court and ask that they kindly take Lev Parnas's bond money that he put up, the 200000, and please give it to this person who's really desperate right now.

MS:

His wife is counting her change when she goes to the grocery store and it was one last effort that he take. And so the tweet is, an investor's lost hundreds of thousands in a Hollywood movie deal. Pitched by Lev Parnas years ago, took the bold step of asking the federal court today to hold the bond money that Parnas paid to get out of jail so the investor can finally be paid.

HB:

That is absolutely amazing. Thank you for that gift today. Mike, thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to join us. We really appreciate it.

MS:

Glad to be here Hayes.

HB:

All right. All last week we asked you to send us questions about impeachment. What confused you and left you wondering, "What?" And so many folks send things in. Thank you. We're going to answer a couple of those questions today. First up is a question from Brigit.

Brigit:

Hello, this is Brigit. And I suppose what I'm most curious about is what recourse do we have against this sort of denial that we're seeing, that's just like, "I won't show up, I won't testify. I won't accept that this actual thing that happened happened." Psychologically, it's powerful enough to maintain the sort of presidency, but legally it feels like that's where we should have something we could do.

HB:

So thanks for that question, Brigit. Okay, so if by we you mean Democrats, there's really not too much they can do right now beyond what they've already done. They've issued subpoenas to have people come in and testify, to have the White House send over documents, but their attempts to take those people who have said, "No thank you," to the subpoenas to court has hit a roadblock. They decided it's better to just let those questions lie instead of fighting through a court battle over the next few months and move forward with impeachment. Okay, here's another listener question.

Jenn:

Aloha Hayes. This is Jenn from Honolulu, Hawaii. Just calling to ask you whether or not there are any roadblocks or gates that go up to keep vice president Mike Pence from possibly becoming president if Donald Trump is either impeached or he resigns. Just trying to find something to be thankful for in this upcoming Thanksgiving season. Much mahalos, love the show. Cheers.

HB:

Well, thank you for asking Jenn. So the short answer is, nope. There is nothing constitutionally or legally that stops vice president Pence from assuming the presidency when and if Donald Trump is removed from office by the Senate. That's just how it works. Also, jealous of Hawaii. Going to go there once this is all over, fingers crossed. Okay. Lastly, here's Kayla with a question about GOP's legal strategy.

Kayla:

Hi, this is Kayla from Raleigh, North Carolina. My question is, we just keep hearing from the Republicans that this is just a partisan attack, that this is just the attempts of the Democrats to undo the election results or this is just the Democrats pissed off that they lost the election three years ago. My question is, is this a legitimate legal argument? And to what extent can they actually use this to try and just brush off the impeachment articles and just say, "This is just the Democrats trying to tear down Donald Trump and we're not going to pay any attention to it."

HB:

Okay, Kayla, the good news as far as you're concerned, I'm sure, is that no, it's not a legal strategy. The White House council put out a letter when all this was kicking off trying to say that, "No, this is not an official real impeachment thing. Ignore it." But a bunch of lawyers looked at it and said, "There is no law in this. There is no citations of law, of precedent, it's just a political statement." So no. But on the flip side, once this goes to the Senate, it is up to the Senate to decide, "Well, do we think Trump should be removed after all of this?"

So, that remains to be seen. And unfortunately, that's not a purely legal decision. Okay, so thanks again to Brigit, Jenn and Kayla and to all the other listeners who wrote or sent an audio over the past week. For this week, we want to know how are you going to be watching live hearings when they start? Will you be watching every minute or just keeping up with it as best you can, Twitter, YouTube, TV, let us know. Open up the Voice Memo app on your phone.

Tell us how you plan to watch, listen and adjust the drama, then email it to impeachment@buzzfeed.com, or find me on Twitter @HayesBrown. My DMs are open. Also, for those who sent in questions that we haven't answered yet, don't worry, we'll get to as many as we can in future episodes. Okay, that's it for today. Tomorrow we're going to run through the full timeline of this whole impeachment saga as best we can as we get ready for the start of public hearings on Wednesday. Be sure to subscribe on thethe iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your favorite shows - and maybe leave a rating and review. Also tell your friends about the show as we all figure this out together.

ADVERTISEMENT