State Politics

DeSantis says he knew Giuliani associate who donated to his campaign

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis acknowledged Wednesday that he personally knew one of the Soviet-born businessmen who raised significant funds for his gubernatorial campaign.

The fundraiser, Lev Parnas, was arrested last week on campaign finance charges as he was trying to leave the country with his business associate, Igor Fruman. Both were also subpoenaed to testify before Congress as part of the ongoing impeachment investigation. Parnas helped President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, investigate Trump’s political opponents in the Ukraine.

Parnas, a naturalized American citizen who was born in southwestern Ukraine and lives in South Florida, is one of four men indicted for allegedly circumventing federal campaign finance laws through a scheme funneling foreign and obscured money to candidates for federal and state office in exchange for possible potential influence, according to the indictment.

At a press conference Wednesday announcing legislation to address wastewater systems in Jupiter, the governor said that during his campaign, “I didn’t know any of this stuff that’s come out.” He said the donations to his campaign looked legitimate, and said Parnas was “viewed as one of the top supporters of the president in Florida.”

“I knew Parnas. I didn’t know the other guy as much,” DeSantis said Wednesday. “But this was a guy who was at [Republican National Committee] functions, Trump Victory functions. He was at a lot of these things.”

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His comments appear to contradict what a DeSantis spokeswoman told the Miami Herald last week, that the governor has had little to no contact with Parnas or Igor Fruman, both of whom worked as unofficial emissaries in Ukraine for Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani after the election. Fruman is also a naturalized American citizen who was born in Belarus and now lives in Florida.

DeSantis said last week that his political committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis, would return the $50,000 donation after Parnas and Fruman were arrested and accused of funneling illicit contributions into state and federal campaigns. The political committee on Tuesday released a letter sent to the U.S. Department of Treasury announcing the transfer of the money to the federal government.

DeSantis announced his plans to return the money after the Miami Herald published a story detailing that Parnas, a Giuliani associate, raised money for DeSantis’ campaign last year.

“Once we saw what happened last week we went ahead and disgorged that money to the treasury,” DeSantis said Wednesday. “Obviously, had we known that that was going to happen, we would have made a different decision at the time.”

DeSantis’ comments came after a fourth defendant in the campaign finance case was arrested Wednesday. South Florida man David Correia was named in the indictment along with Parnas, Fruman and another businessman named Andrey Kukushkin.

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Parnas hosted two fundraisers for DeSantis in the summer and fall of 2018, the Miami Herald reported. 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.

The second event was 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.

Samantha J. Gross is a politics and policy reporter for the Miami Herald. Before she moved to the Sunshine State, she covered breaking news at the Boston Globe and the Dallas Morning News.
David Smiley is a Florida native (yes, they exist) and veteran of South Florida journalism. He’s covered schools, cops and crime, and various city halls, earning awards for stories about municipal pensions and Miami Beach’s police department. He became the Miami Herald’s political reporter in 2018 and covered the midterm elections and recount.