U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman speaks to reporters in New York City Thursday after two associates of President Donald Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, were indicted on charges they schemed to funnel foreign money to influence U.S.-Ukraine relations. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo
Oct. 10 (UPI) -- Two foreign-born, Florida-based political donors, who prosecutors say offered to pressure Ukraine for an investigation of Democrat Joe Biden and his son, were indicted in federal court Thursday on unrelated campaign finance charges.
Belarus-born Igor Fruman and Ukraine-born Lev Parnas donated to a political action committee favoring President Donald Trump's re-election campaign, and worked with Trump's attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to press Kiev for an inquiry into the Bidens, prosecutors said in the indictment. The men, both U.S. citizens, have been under investigation by the U.S. Attorney's office in Manhattan.
The pair were charged by a federal grand jury in New York, arrested Wednesday night at Washington Dulles International Airport and were scheduled to appear in Virginia federal court Thursday afternoon.
The indictments are semi-connected to an impeachment investigation by House Democrats trying to determine whether Trump threatened to withhold military aid to Ukraine in exchange for action against the Bidens. Refusing Congress-approved aid for personal, political benefit is an impeachable offense, many experts say.
Thursday's charges stem from activities Parnas and Fruman conducted at Giuliani's direction, including removing U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch from her post. The indictment says the men acted on behalf of an unnamed Ukranian official and hid the source of their political donations.
Prosecutors say the men also pressured Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, to help remove Yovanovitch as they funded his campaign -- and attempted to use political funds to buy licenses to grow marijuana. The indictment said the donations originated with an unidentified Russian businessman.
Trump's personal lawyer, Jay Sekulow, defended the president after the indictment.
"The alleged activity was done without the knowledge of the candidates or campaign," he told Politico.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who was involved in a July phone call with Trump that eventually sparked the House's impeachment inquiry, said during a marathon news conference Thursday that no sort of blackmail was involved in his dealings with Trump. He added the military aid hadn't been blocked before the phone call and said the conversation wasn't related to the funds.
"I don't want to interfere in U.S. elections," he said, adding that he's awaiting an official visit to the United States.
"The president of the Ukraine just stated again, in the strongest of language, that President Trump applied no pressure and did absolutely nothing wrong," Trump tweeted Thursday. "He used the strongest language possible. That should end this Democrat scam, but it won't."
Trump has acknowledged withholding aid to Ukraine and pressing Ukraine about the Bidens, but has maintained the two issues were not related. Hunter Biden worked for a Ukrainian oil and gas company for five years before he left its board early this year.
The chairmen of three House committees are leading the investigation and have subpoenaed witnesses and records relevant to the case, including Fruman and Parnas on Thursday. Some witnesses did not show up for scheduled depositions on orders from the Trump administration. The White House said this week it won't cooperate with any of the Democrats' requests, classifying the inquiry as "illegitimate," "unconstitutional" and "partisan."