State Politics

Giuliani associate embroiled in Trump Ukraine drama raised money for DeSantis campaign

A Soviet-born businessman who helped President Donald Trump’s personal attorney dig for dirt in Ukraine on his political opponents also helped raise significant sums of money last year for Ron DeSantis as he campaigned to become Florida’s governor.

Lev Parnas, one of two South Florida businessmen called to testify before Congress as part of an impeachment investigation, hosted two fundraisers for DeSantis in the summer and fall of 2018, the Miami Herald has learned. One of the events was an exclusive affair held at a South Florida residence with fewer than 30 people attending, including the governor. The other gathering was headlined by Donald Trump Jr.

A DeSantis spokeswoman told the Miami Herald Wednesday that the governor has had little to no contact with Parnas or Igor Fruman, both of whom worked as unofficial emissaries in Ukraine this year for Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani.

“It is my understanding that the governor did not have a one-on-one meeting with these individuals,” DeSantis spokeswoman Helen Ferré wrote Tuesday in response to questions about DeSantis’ relationship with Parnas and Fruman. “They may have attended some large events related to the 2018 elections.”

But DeSantis’ own campaign calendar and a publicly disseminated fundraiser invitation show that DeSantis repeatedly accepted Parnas’ financial support, and may have rubbed elbows with him in the tony South Florida island town of Hillsboro Beach. And the information — revealed as Parnas and Fruman are expected to snub Congress’ demands that they appear Thursday for depositions as part of the impeachment inquiry — sheds new light on the depths of the businessmen’s efforts to ingratiate themselves with the GOP and with Trump, who campaigned aggressively for DeSantis in Florida.

State and campaign documents show that Parnas and Fruman’s contact with DeSantis’ campaign goes back at least to June 21, 2018, when they gave DeSantis’ political committee $50,000 through a company called Global Energy Producers. The donation, which has been previously reported, came one day before Trump officially endorsed DeSantis for Florida governor.

Fruman and Parnas were, at the time, raising and donating money to Republican politicians, in Florida and nationally.

Starting in 2017, the duo gave more than $400,000 to Republican candidates in Florida and Washington, including Sen. Rick Scott and DeSantis’ Republican primary opponent, Adam Putnam. The bulk of the money came in May of 2018, when Global Energy Producers was listed as the source of a $325,000 donation to Trump-aligned Super PAC America First Action.

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Donald Trump Jr. and Jeanine Pirro headlined a fundraiser for the benefit of Ron DeSantis’ gubernatorial campaign in July of 2018. Lev Parnas, an associate of Rudy Giuliani’s, was on the host committee.

Two months later, in July, Parnas’ name appeared on an invitation as part of a host committee for an event featuring Donald Trump Jr. and benefiting DeSantis’ primary campaign. The July 18 fundraiser at the Alaqua Country Club in Longwood — a small town in Central Florida — was headlined by Trump Jr. and FOX News host Jeanine Pirro.

Parnas was listed on the invitation as a member of the Donald Trump Jr. Executive Steering Committee, a nine-person group that included Robert Dello Russo, an HVAC company executive from Longwood who gave $10,000 that same day to DeSantis’ political committee, and Diane Holm, who owns Florida restaurants with her husband and gave $50,000.

DeSantis would go on to easily win the primary in late August thanks in large part to the blessing of the president, who campaigned with DeSantis in Tampa in late July at the Florida State Fairgrounds. Trump appeared with DeSantis again in October in Southwest Florida and in the Panhandle, helping to push him over the top in a narrowly won general election.

Pressed for more information, Ferré, DeSantis’ spokeswoman, referred further questions from the Miami Herald to the Republican Party of Florida, which served as a clearinghouse for much of the DeSantis campaign activity. Party Chairman Joe Gruters, who also served as co-chair of Trump’s 2016 Florida campaign, said Parnas and Fruman aren’t “on the radar” as well-known donors or political players.

“The governor has never mentioned these guys to me, ever,” said Gruters. “I’d be surprised if the governor said anything other than ‘Hello.’ I doubt he even took a picture with these guys.”

And yet during the final weeks of the campaign, Parnas helped host a second fundraiser for DeSantis.

A DeSantis campaign itinerary shows that DeSantis spent roughly an hour at an intimate gathering on Oct. 3 at the $11 million Hillsboro Beach home of Thomas and Michelle Murphy in Broward County. The fundraiser, which was expected to raise $250,000, was hosted by Parnas, oil and asphalt tycoon and GOP fundraiser Harry Sargeant, and construction magnate Robert Pereira, who at the time lived down the street from the Murphys.

Both DeSantis and his running mate, Jeanette Nuñez, attended, and were introduced by Pereira.

In a brief interview Wednesday, Michelle Murphy, who hosted the fundraiser at her home, had little to say about Parnas.

“I really don’t know him that well,” she said, adding that she hosted the event at the request of a friend.

Still, the guest list adds another element to the tangled web of contacts around Parnas.

Sargeant was the subject of an Associated Press report this week that alleged that he, Parnas and Fruman sought this year to overturn the leadership at state-owned Ukrainian gas company Naftogaz and steer contracts their way. Sargeant, who did not comment for this article, acknowledged that he met with Parnas, Fruman and a Naftogaz executive in Houston in March but was adamant that no coup at the company was discussed.

Also in attendance: Felix Vulis, a former business partner of Parnas’ who would sue him a few months after the fundraiser over a $100,000 loan. Vulis did not immediately respond to a voicemail left on his cellphone Wednesday.

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