AILSA CHANG, HOST:
We often see that impeachment is a political process, not a criminal one. Now we're going to take some time to dig into a case where the lines blur. Two men Democrats want to question in the Trump impeachment inquiry are also charged with federal crimes. They were business associates of President Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The FBI arrested them at an airport earlier this month with one-way tickets out of the U.S. Tomorrow, they will be arraigned in a New York courtroom. Our co-host, Ari Shapiro, has this deep dive into who these guys are and how their case connects to the larger story of impeachment.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The story of Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman unfolds like a globe-trotting mystery over more than a year. Two unofficial investigators on different continents steadily scratching at clues and raising flags, neither one of them able to see the full picture - one sleuth was in Washington, an expert in money and politics...
TREVOR POTTER: We filed a complaint at the FEC.
SHAPIRO: ...The other in Kyiv with an eye on corruption in Ukraine.
DALE PERRY: And then I sent that memo to somebody in the U.S. embassy.
SHAPIRO: The first investigator has a D.C. pedigree. Trevor Potter is a Republican who used to chair the Federal Election Commission. He has worked on legitimate campaigns and satirical ones like with Stephen Colbert in 2011.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COLBERT REPORT")
STEPHEN COLBERT: Oh, my God. I need a lawyer. Please welcome former FEC chairman, general counsel for the McCain 2008 campaign and my personal lawyer, Trevor Potter. Trevor, thank you so much for coming.
SHAPIRO: Now Potter runs a group called the Campaign Legal Center. His team scans political contributions looking for suspicious transactions that they report to authorities. And in the summer of last year, they found one. A company called Global Energy Producers gave more than $300,000 to the superPAC supporting President Trump. When Potter and his team started digging into the company, they found it was just a shell.
POTTER: It was a blank slate.
SHAPIRO: The company hadn't existed.
POTTER: It had been formed literally a couple weeks before the contribution. It had no website, no history of political activity. So you're thinking this is most likely a company created to make this contribution.
SHAPIRO: Which is illegal. You can't set up a shell company just to hide a political contribution.
POTTER: You have to disclose on the FEC reports the true source of the money, who the contributor actually is.
SHAPIRO: Potter and his team wanted to know who was behind the company, so they kept digging. And eventually, they identified addresses associated with this company in South Florida and New York.
POTTER: So you take a look at the address and you say, you know, has anyone else given from it?
SHAPIRO: Sure enough, they found contributions to Pete Sessions of Texas, who was a Republican congressman at the time. He lost his reelection bid last year. And the donors were Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman. So Potter's group alerted the FEC about possible campaign finance violations by these guys and then silence. Months later, on the other side of the globe, sleuth No. 2 heard those same names, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman. He doesn't know anything about campaign finance. Dale Perry knows about corruption and the energy industry in Ukraine because he owns an American energy company that does business there. He first heard of Parnas and Fruman when those guys met with Perry's former business partner and presented an unusual plan.
PERRY: What was so troubling was it was basically the presentation of the intent to take the gas sector back to where it was during the Yanukovych regime.
SHAPIRO: So a place that would be a little more corrupt, a little less transparent.
PERRY: A heck of a lot more corrupt.
SHAPIRO: One part of the plan Parnas and Fruman described at this meeting was to replace the head of Ukraine's state-run gas company. Another part was to replace the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch.
PERRY: I had never seen anybody in any part of the world where I've worked - and I've worked in some 30 different countries - never seen a business person to claim that they could see an ambassador removed.
SHAPIRO: Remember. The effort to remove that ambassador is key to Congress' impeachment inquiry. President Trump called Yovanovitch bad news. She had a history of fighting corruption in Ukraine. So in Kyiv, Dale Perry put all of his concerns into a memo and sent it to a contact at the U.S. embassy.
PERRY: At times when I was putting it together, I felt like I was paranoid and going a little bit - I don't want to say a little bit crazy, but maybe I would say it that way.
SHAPIRO: After all, Parnas and Fruman were not well-known players in business or political circles in Ukraine or the U.S. Financial documents show that Parnas had a string of debts. People who know the men say Fruman, who was born in Belarus, doesn't speak great English. Though both were born overseas, they are both U.S. citizens.
PERRY: When two or three or four business people can go out and see to it that a U.S. ambassador is removed from her post when she's doing a fabulous, fantastic, excellent job, there is a serious problem with our form of governance.
SHAPIRO: The lawyer for Parnas and Fruman, John Dowd, declined to speak with us for this story. But we can do better than that. Meet one of the men at the center of the indictment.
LEV PARNAS: Lev Parnas. I'm the CEO of a company called Global Energy Producers.
SHAPIRO: One of our colleagues, Jeff Brady, recorded an interview with Lev Parnas last month before the arrests. They talked about the political contributions from that company, Global Energy Producers.
PARNAS: You know, this is actually the first couple of times that I really started doing some bigger donations because I wanted to get notoriety for my energy company. And I thought it might be a great way to, you know, play with the big boys as you call it.
SHAPIRO: He calls it an energy company, but, remember, it had no visible business or financing or connections to the energy industry. What it did have was a well-connected ally.
PARNAS: Mayor Giuliani is a very dear friend of mine, yes.
SHAPIRO: Mayor Rudy Giuliani, President Trump's personal lawyer.
PARNAS: We visit the same places - New York, Washington, Florida. We play golf together.
SHAPIRO: Lev Parnas and Rudy Giuliani had more than just social connections. Parnas says there were financial ties, too.
PARNAS: We actually met with the mayor on a business transaction about a company that I owned back in the days. And we just became good friends and just started spending a lot of time together.
SHAPIRO: The name of that business...
PARNAS: It was a company called Fraud Guarantee.
SHAPIRO: Fraud Guarantee. Giuliani told Reuters that Fraud Guarantee paid him half a million dollars for consulting and legal advice. And Parnas says he and Giuliani also worked closely in Ukraine. Giuliani's actions in Ukraine are another key part of the impeachment inquiry.
PARNAS: I just happen to be Ukrainian. I happen to speak the language. I happen to also have a lot of resources in that part of the world.
SHAPIRO: Parnas arranged and sat in on meetings between Giuliani and Ukrainians promising dirt on Democrats.
PARNAS: I was present, but I'm not going to comment on what was discussed in those meetings.
SHAPIRO: Some of those Ukrainians have come up in the impeachment inquiry. The team of Giuliani, Parnas and Fruman achieved at least part of what they set out to do. In May, the Trump administration pulled Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch out of the U.S. embassy in Kyiv. And in Ukraine, anti-corruption groups that worked closely with the U.S. were shocked.
DARIA KALENIUK: And it is like killing you to your back - how to put it in English.
SHAPIRO: Being stabbed in the back.
KALENIUK: Being stabbed in the back with the knife, right.
SHAPIRO: Daria Kaleniuk runs the Anti-Corruption Action Center in Kyiv.
KALENIUK: And the United States for many years was our key ally and key partner covering our backs. But now we are at the situation when the Ukrainian oligarchs and kleptocrats and some corrupt officials are getting support from the senior level officials in the United States.
SHAPIRO: But she also sees a silver lining.
KALENIUK: There are people inside American institutions which are fighting for democracy.
SHAPIRO: To her, those people include the whistleblower who kicked off the impeachment inquiry and the people who brought Parnas and Fruman's activities to light.
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WILLIAM SWEENEY: Last night at a Washington Dulles International Airport, the FBI arrested Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman on campaign finance-related charges as they attempted to leave the United States.
SHAPIRO: That's Bill Sweeney of the FBI speaking at a press conference in New York two weeks ago.
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SWEENEY: These allegations are not about some technicality, a civil violation or an error on a form. This investigation is about corrupt behavior, deliberate lawbreaking.
SHAPIRO: The indictment fills in some of the gaps in the puzzle that the amateur sleuths put together. For example, it says after the defendants made the contribution to Texas Republican Congressman Pete Sessions, they lobbied him to help get rid of Ambassador Yovanovitch. We now know that after that meeting, Sessions wrote a letter to the State Department about Yovanovitch. It says the ambassador expressed disdain for the Trump administration in a way that might call for her immediate expulsion. Sessions says that letter was not because of Parnas and Fruman. The indictment also alleges that Parnas and Fruman funneled money to other politicians and candidates from an unnamed Russian, which means this is also a story about foreign influence in American elections. For Trevor Potter at the Campaign Legal Center who had heard nothing since he first filed a complaint about these guys more than a year ago, the arrests were a shock.
POTTER: To go from what we thought was - I have to say - a garden variety FEC violation in a string of complaints we have filed to suddenly discovering that they were completely wrapped up in the White House actions, the Giuliani actions, what was happening in Ukraine and letters from members of Congress on the firing of the ambassador is simply a very different scale than we had understood up until then in our work.
SHAPIRO: It was an ordinary day fishing, and you caught a whale.
POTTER: I think that's about right.
SHAPIRO: There are still a lot of things we don't know about this case, like who is the Russian that allegedly provided the money for the campaign donations? How much did Rudy Giuliani or President Trump know about what Fruman and Parnas were doing? There are photographs showing the defendants with members of the Trump family, including the president. Trump insists he's been photographed with lots of people.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I don't know them. I don't know about them. I don't know what they do. But - I don't know. Maybe they were clients of Rudy. You'd have to ask Rudy. I just don't know.
SHAPIRO: At a more basic level, I asked Trevor Potter how we should think about where Parnas and Fruman fit into the larger web of the impeachment inquiry.
Do you see them as sort of masterminds or bumbling executors of someone else's orders? Like, how do you actually see their role in all of this?
POTTER: That is the question, I think, because we don't know a lot about them. They weren't politically active until last year. So what is it that turned them on? And where did they get all this money? So the question of who is behind all this, who is using whom, is I think still to be revealed but I would expect will be revealed.
SHAPIRO: At the news conference after the men were arrested earlier this month, prosecutors said their investigation is continuing. And Congress has questions, too. The House Intelligence Committee issued a subpoena for Parnas and Fruman after the men were arrested. So far, they haven't cooperated with Congress, but in federal court, they have no choice but to show up. The men will be arraigned in New York tomorrow morning. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.