Florida’s governor met indicted businessman at a Zionist Organization of America event

Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at pre-legislative news conference on Tuesday Oct. 29, 2019, in Tallahassee.
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at pre-legislative news conference on Tuesday Oct. 29, 2019, in Tallahassee. AP

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis likely met a Ukrainian-American businessman now indicted on campaign finance charges and subpoenaed in an ongoing impeachment inquiry at a pro-Israel event in May 2018, his aides believe.

DeSantis, at the time a congressman, first came into contact with Lev Parnas after speaking at a gathering of the Zionist Organization of America on May 9, 2018, according to a spokeswoman for the governor. The spokeswoman was unsure of the exact nature of the event, but DeSantis spoke at the organization’s annual Washington Mission that same day in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill.

It’s unclear how DeSantis and Parnas — who would go on to co-host fundraisers for DeSantis and appear at his inauguration with “very very important person” status — were introduced.

“We think they met after then-Congressman DeSantis spoke at a Zion Organization of America event in May of 2018,” DeSantis spokeswoman Helen Ferré explained in an email. “Any interactions between the campaign and Lev Parnas were toward building support for the campaign.”

At the time he met DeSantis, Parnas was a relatively little-known businessman from Boca Raton working his way into Republican circles. Now he is a figure of international relevance after he and another South Florida associate, Igor Fruman, were subpoenaed by Congress for records related to their work on behalf of President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer in pushing the Ukrainian government to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden.

Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman Alexandria Sheriff's Office

Parnas, Fruman and two other business associates — David Correia and Andrey Kukushkin — have also been accused by federal prosecutors in New York of scheming to steer more than $1 million in foreign money into U.S. elections. All four have pleaded not guilty.

The information on how DeSantis met Parnas and possibly Fruman — Ferré was unsure if both were at the event — helps shed light on how the two men became somewhat regular figures around DeSantis’ gubernatorial campaign.

Parnas co-hosted fundraisers for DeSantis’ gubernatorial campaign and attended campaign functions alongside Trump’s attorney, Rudy Giuliani, in the final days before DeSantis won the race for Florida governor. Parnas and Fruman also contributed $50,000 to DeSantis’ political committee in June of 2018 through a Delaware corporation identified by prosecutors in New York as a shell company used to make illegal campaign contributions.

After DeSantis won the race for governor, Parnas and Fruman attended an inaugural event at the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach and his inauguration in Tallahassee, during which they were identified as “very, very important people” by his transition team. Heather Barker, DeSantis’ campaign finance director, told the Tampa Bay Times that DeSantis neither saw nor approved the guest list for his inauguration.

After Parnas and Fruman were arrested, DeSantis ordered his political committee to disgorge the contribution from their company, Global Energy Producers. DeSantis has also said he knew Parnas as “one of the top” supporters of Trump in Florida, and that Parnas’ request last year to join a committee on his transition team was denied.

But he has otherwise declined on multiple occasions to talk about his contacts with Parnas and Fruman, saying there’s nothing more to discuss.

“I’m not going to have any comment on that,” DeSantis said when asked Monday about Parnas following a healthcare announcement at a Palm Harbor Walmart. “I’ve said all I’m going to say. I’m going to focus on doing the people’s work of Florida.”

Likewise, Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez declined to answer questions last week about her contact with Parnas when approached by a Miami Herald reporter following an event at Florida International University. Afterward, she issued a statement through a spokeswoman in which she said her only contact with either Parnas or Fruman came at an intimate, high-dollar fundraiser co-hosted by Parnas in October of 2018 at a private home in Hillsboro Beach.

“My interaction with these individuals was solely attending a campaign function,” Nuñez said.

Nuñez’s spokeswoman, Yohana de la Torre, said the lieutenant governor “had no conversations with either of the individuals.”

Parnas and Fruman were active in pro-Israel organizations and in Washington, so it’s no surprise that they would attend a Capitol Hill event held by the Zionist Organization of America, which says it is the oldest pro-Israel organization in the United States.

They were honored in March of this year by the National Council of Young Israel and traveled with the organization last summer in July as part of a delegation to Israel that also included former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci.

During the trip, they spent an evening at the home of Simon Falic, a prominent Florida GOP donor.

“Lev has a tendency to stick his head in a lot of pictures,” Scaramucci told reporters recently during a visit to Fort Lauderdale. “Igor’s not a talkative person. Lev’s a very talkative person, fluent in English, and was dropping Rudy’s name like a machine gunner.”

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said in an interview Monday that the organization’s Washington Mission is typically attended by 300 to 400 people, and features roughly three dozen congressional speakers. DeSantis, he said, “was one of the best friends of Israel when he was in Congress.”

Tickets to the event were between $169 and $219, according to an advertisement posted on the organization’s website. But Klein says he doesn’t remember ever meeting Parnas or Fruman, and couldn’t say if they attended the event last May.

“All I can tell you Is I personally had never heard their names until they were in the news. I have no recollection of ever meeting them,” he said. “If they were even moderately active, then I would have known their names.”

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.