By Aram Roston and Joseph Tanfani
BOCA RATON, Florida (Reuters) - Ukrainian-American businessman Lev Parnas and his business partner were arrested in 2019, accused by the U.S. government of funneling a Russian oligarch’s money into American political campaigns. One recipient of Parnas’ donations -- Florida Governor Ron DeSantis -- has said he was barely an acquaintance.
“The governor does not have a relationship with these individuals,” DeSantis’ spokesperson at the time, Helen Aguirre Ferré, said in a statement on Oct. 10, 2019. Six days later, DeSantis told reporters that Parnas "was just like any other donor, nothing more than that.”
But DeSantis and Parnas worked more closely together than the Republican governor has disclosed, according to a detailed account of their relationship Parnas provided to Reuters and 63 previously unreported text messages from DeSantis to Parnas between May and October 2018, as DeSantis campaigned for governor. A jury later found Parnas guilty of campaign finance crimes and other charges.
As DeSantis prepares to take a widely anticipated leap into the 2024 presidential campaign this week, the disclosures from Parnas cast new light on the Florida governor’s relationship with the businessman and the role Parnas played in helping DeSantis gain entree to the circle of former President Donald Trump.
DeSantis spokesman Dave Abrams did not respond to specific questions on the existence of the texts and Parnas’ account of their relationship. “This is another recycled narrative that has been proven wrong many times over," he said. DeSantis gave back the contribution after Parnas ran into legal trouble.
The text messages reviewed by Reuters show that DeSantis frequently – in more than 20 texts – appealed to fellow Floridian Parnas for introductions, advice and other fundraising help during his hotly contested campaign for governor. Two sources close to DeSantis during his 2018 campaign confirmed the texter’s number belonged to DeSantis at that time.
The texts also reveal that Parnas served as an intermediary between DeSantis and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who at the time was the personal attorney of then-President Trump. In one case, 10 days before the 2018 election, DeSantis sent Parnas a text with suggested wording for a Giuliani tweet in support of his candidacy, the messages show.
Giuliani did not respond to questions sent through his attorney and his spokesman. Ferré, DeSantis’ former spokesperson, did not respond to requests for comment.
“WE BECAME VERY FRIENDLY”
Parnas, now 51, shot to prominence in 2019. He was a key figure in the events leading to Trump’s first impeachment, working with Giuliani to gather damaging information on Democrat Joe Biden’s son Hunter in Ukraine. Accused of withholding aid to Ukraine unless Kyiv investigated Biden, Trump was impeached by the Democratic-led House of Representatives and charged with abuse of power. He was acquitted by the Republican-majority Senate.
A federal judge sentenced Parnas last year to 20 months in prison on a separate matter, defrauding investors in a sham company and illegally making donations to U.S. political candidates on behalf of Russian oligarch Andrey Muraviev. Muraviev has been charged in the case but is a fugitive. He declined to comment.
Even before his criminal case, Parnas had an unusual resume for a political rainmaker. After moving to Florida from New York in 1995, he worked for penny stock companies that ran into regulatory problems, according to public records. In 2016, a federal court in New York issued a $508,734 judgment against him for defrauding an individual whose family trust lent Parnas money for a movie, called “Anatomy of an Assassin,” according to the judge’s ruling. Parnas says he did nothing wrong in that case.
Parnas is serving out his sentence under house arrest. Wearing shorts and an ankle bracelet, he spoke with Reuters for several hours at his home in Boca Raton. Parnas says he now regrets his alliance with Giuliani and Trump, believing he was used. He said he shared the texts with Reuters because he feels betrayed by DeSantis, who he says stopped returning texts or calls once he won the governor’s race.
Parnas once considered DeSantis a close confidant, he said. “We became very friendly.”
In 2018, Parnas was a well-known figure in Trump’s orbit, often seen with Giuliani. Parnas and his business partner, another Ukrainian American named Igor Fruman, would later pay Giuliani $500,000 for consultant work, Reuters has reported.
Parnas said he first met DeSantis on May 9, 2018, about three months before Republican primary elections in Florida. DeSantis, then a three-term U.S. Representative, was locked in a tight primary race for governor with Adam Putnam, Florida’s then-commissioner of agriculture.
“Ron DeSantis approached me at the Trump International Hotel and introduced himself, telling me that he was told to come meet me because I was very close with Donald Trump,” Parnas said. Reuters could not establish who told DeSantis to meet with Parnas at the Washington D.C. hotel.
While Trump had already tweeted support for DeSantis the prior December, DeSantis wanted a formal endorsement by Trump ahead of the August primary. “He told me he heard I was the guy to speak to because of my relationship with Trump, that’s how he worded it,” Parnas said.
There’s no evidence Parnas had any direct influence with Trump. A spokesperson for Trump did not respond to a request for comment.
But Parnas conferred frequently with Giuliani. At 9:49 p.m. that day in May 2018, DeSantis texted his cell phone and email addresses to Parnas, according to the messages reviewed by Reuters. Parnas replied by sending his own email address to DeSantis.
At their first meeting at the hotel, Parnas described himself as “a bit standoffish” with DeSantis because he hoped to launch a cannabis business and considered DeSantis hostile to legalized marijuana. In another meeting several days later, also at Trump’s hotel, DeSantis told him he was not opposed to expanding medical marijuana use in Florida, Parnas said.
Reuters could not independently corroborate the hotel meetings. One frequent hotel patron, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he remembered seeing DeSantis and Parnas speaking together in the lobby that May or June. The hotel has since been sold.
Parnas said Dana Rohrabacher, a former Republican congressman from California, was present at the second meeting where Parnas said DeSantis discussed medical marijuana use. Rohrabacher told Reuters he does not recall the meeting or hearing DeSantis talk about marijuana. “What do I remember from five years ago?”
Parnas says after their second meeting, he told DeSantis that he would try to secure a formal Trump endorsement by promoting DeSantis with Giuliani. Parnas spoke with Giuliani the next day, recommending that he talk with DeSantis and back him, he said.
In July 2018, DeSantis publicly expressed support for medical marijuana.
“MAKE SURE HE GIVES A LOT.”
Within a week of their second meeting, DeSantis and Parnas began exchanging ideas and gossip about potential donors, the texts show. On May 29, 2018, DeSantis sent Parnas a text introducing his fundraising aide, Heather Barker, and enlisting Parnas’ help in lining up donors for events in Boca Raton and on Star Island, an exclusive community in Miami.
“Let me know a good time this week to chat about logistics and date ideas,” Barker texted Parnas.
Barker requested that Reuters email her questions for this report, but did not respond to the questions.
The next month, the texts show, DeSantis asked Parnas for advice on how to handle a potential major donor.
“Would it be reasonable to ask him to donate $50K?” DeSantis asked. “I think he did six figures for Trump.”
DeSantis had done his homework: The donor, South Florida roofing contractor Michael Trussell, had contributed $100,000 to a joint Trump-Republican Party fundraising committee in 2016, campaign records show.
Parnas replied by text that he would call DeSantis. On the phone, he told DeSantis that Trussell was an acquaintance and would indeed be good for about $50,000, Parnas said.
Ten days after that exchange, campaign finance records show, Trussell’s roofing firm donated $10,000 to DeSantis, and added another $13,000 before the 2018 election. The firm has contributed another $143,000 since, campaign finance records show.
Trussell said he met Parnas once at a Trump fundraiser but had no relationship with him, adding that DeSantis did not mention Parnas when he called seeking a campaign donation.
On the evening of June 5, DeSantis reached out to Parnas. “I’ll swing by Trump Hotel tonight,” he said, “before I go on Laura Ingraham – is that ok?” Ingraham is a host on Fox News, the rightwing news and opinion channel. DeSantis appeared on her show that evening.
“Perfect,” Parnas texted back. Parnas said the two met at the hotel and discussed Giuliani’s support of DeSantis.
On June 21, 2018, Parnas’ company, Global Energy Producers, donated $50,000 to DeSantis’ campaign for governor. The company was unusual. Although incorporated in early 2018 as an energy investor, it never completed a single deal, according to the U.S. charges against Parnas.
After thanking Parnas for the contribution, DeSantis pushed him again to help land a big donor: Robert Pereira, president of construction firm Middlesex Corp. Parnas knew the businessman from past fundraisers in Florida.
“Now let’s bring Robert home!” DeSantis wrote. Three weeks later, DeSantis added, “Make sure he gives a lot.”
Pereira later co-hosted a fundraiser for DeSantis with Parnas and his company donated $115,000 to DeSantis’ 2018 campaign, campaign finance records show. He declined to discuss Parnas with Reuters and did not respond to detailed questions.
“I’M GOING TO HAVE RUDY DO A TWEET”
Political donations from Parnas’ company later emerged as part of the criminal case against Parnas and Muraviev, the Russian oligarch who federal authorities indicted for making illegal campaign contributions to boost a planned marijuana business.
Justice Department officials said Muraviev tried to influence the 2018 U.S. elections by plotting to send $1 million to candidates and campaigns, hoping to win favor for a cannabis business venture. It is illegal for foreign nationals to donate to American political campaigns.
Parnas said DeSantis had agreed to meet Muraviev and knew of the tycoon's ambitions to enter the cannabis business in Florida. The meeting, however, never happened.
Prosecutors did not specifically mention the $50,000 donation by Parnas’ company to DeSantis in their federal case.
But they said Parnas’s donations were part of a scheme that included circumventing campaign finance laws and soliciting money from a foreign national to win influence in Florida. There is no evidence that DeSantis knew of wrongdoing.
Parnas “defrauded the American public” with the foreign donor scheme and lied “about the source of funds for political contributions,” said a Justice Department statement after Parnas’ sentencing last year.
On June 22, 2018, Trump tweeted a strong formal endorsement for DeSantis. “Ron is strong on Borders, tough on Crime & big on Cutting Taxes - Loves our Military & our Vets. He will be a Great Governor & has my full Endorsement!”
Promoting Trump’s support in his mail and TV ads, DeSantis opened a wide lead. On Aug. 28, he won the Republican primary.
But going into the general election, DeSantis was the underdog, trailing Democratic opponent Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum, the first Black nominee for Florida governor. As a federal corruption investigation into Tallahassee’s government made headlines, threatening to torpedo Gillum’s prospects, Parnas sent DeSantis a text on Oct. 26, telling him, “I’m going to have Rudy do a tweet” on Gillum.
“He needs to hit him on his scandal,” DeSantis texted back to Parnas. “Can say as a prosecutor this would be an indictable case etc.”
Parnas texted back a thumbs up emoji and wrote, “Tomorrow.”
The next day, Parnas texted DeSantis a picture of Giuliani’s tweet. It wasn’t exactly what DeSantis suggested but did use the phrasing: “As a former prosecutor and Mayor, I ask the people of my adopted State Florida to reject a Mayor with highest murder and crime rates in State…”
During the general election, Parnas attended rallies with DeSantis, taking Giuliani’s plane from one event to the next.
“Big day my brother!!! We will win!!!” Parnas texted on election day.
With Gillum weighed down by the corruption investigation, DeSantis eked out a narrow victory. Parnas was photographed hugging DeSantis that night at the victory party. A jury this month acquitted Gillum of lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and failed to reach a verdict on charges that he pocketed campaign contributions. The remaining charges were dismissed last week.
“Had the FBI not leaked their investigation, which ultimately – and correctly – ended up in an acquittal, there is no question that Andrew Gillum would be the Governor of Florida today,” Gillum’s lawyers said in a statement. An FBI spokesperson declined to comment.
After the election, DeSantis quit responding to Parnas’ texts. By then, Parnas and his business partner, Fruman, were facing federal scrutiny over their political donations. After Parnas was indicted in October 2019, DeSantis returned his $50,000 donation to the U.S. government. Fruman pleaded guilty to campaign finance charges in 2021 and was sentenced last year to a year in prison.
A jury convicted Parnas of campaign finance crimes. He pleaded guilty to fraud related to his "Fraud Guarantee" business, which boasted it could insure people against fraud while defrauding its investors of more than $2 million, according to federal prosecutors.
Infuriated at being frozen out, Parnas claims that DeSantis reneged on a promise to give him a place on a gubernatorial transition committee. Finally, he said, DeSantis agreed to a private meeting in January 2019 at a jet terminal at West Palm Beach International Airport. He said DeSantis assured him that “I’m still his boy,” even if he had to avoid associating with him in public.
Parnas said he subsequently spoke several times with DeSantis by phone, but they never resumed their close relationship. He says he remains angry at DeSantis.
“Remember, he was my friend,” Parnas said. “I didn’t just look at him as the governor - he was my friend.”
(Reported by Aram Roston in Boca Raton, Florida, and Joseph Tanfani in Washington. Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova in New York. Editing by Jason Szep)