(Bloomberg) -- Associates of a Ukrainian oligarch fighting extradition to the U.S. were working to dig up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden last summer in an effort to get Rudy Giuliani’s help in the oligarch’s legal case, according to three people familiar with the exchanges.
Dmitry Firtash, charged with conspiracy by the U.S. and living in Vienna, shuffled lawyers in July to add Joe diGenova and Victoria Toensing, vocal supporters of President Donald Trump who had worked with Giuliani. Around that time, some of Firtash’s associates began to use his broad network of Ukraine contacts to get damaging information on Biden, the people said.
DiGenova and Toensing have billed Firtash about $1 million for their work, one of the people said. That includes costs for Lev Parnas, a Giuliani associate, as a translator and important contact, the person said. Parnas was arrested last week along with several associates and accused of conspiring to violate campaign-finance laws.
People working on Firtash’s behalf collected a witness statement from Viktor Shokin, a former Ukrainian prosecutor-general. The statement, dated early September, helped Giuliani renew an assertion that he’d been advancing for months -- that Biden had tried in 2016 to sway Ukrainian politics to help his son. U.S. and Ukrainian officials have disputed Shokin’s account.
Shokin, though, had been promised his statement wouldn’t be made public, according to the people. Giuliani went on to cite it repeatedly, waving it around on cable news as evidence of Biden’s alleged corruption. The Hill and other media outlets provided links to it, with Giuliani later suggesting he had a role in making it public. “This is the affidavit I put out,” he said during a Fox News interview this month.
As a result of the publicity Giuliani generated with Shokin’s statement, two of the people said they believe the odds of the Justice Department dropping the case against Firtash have plummeted, because it would look like a quid pro quo. Others connected to the case agreed.
U.S. lawmakers conducting a presidential impeachment inquiry are bearing down on whether favors were traded for influence. They are examining Giuliani’s efforts to turn up evidence in Ukraine and allegations that the Trump administration withheld crucial aid until the country’s president agreed to investigate the Bidens.
George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, testified to Congressional investigators this week that Giuliani asked the State Department and the White House around January to grant a visa to Shokin so he could travel to the U.S., CNN reported on Saturday. The effort failed after the State Department objected, though Giuliani eventually spoke with Shokin over Skype, CNN said.
If indeed Firtash’s camp aided the Trump political machine, that could be a problem. American politicians cannot accept foreign campaign contributions, and as Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has laid out, even non-monetary assistance can have a value.
In a statement from his spokesman, Firtash denied having contact with Giuliani.
Giuliani, in a text message, wrote: “I have nothing to do with Firtash case. Never met him and don’t know him.”
Asked about whether Shokin’s statement may have harmed Firtash’s chances of getting the case dropped, Giuliani responded, “It would seem to me it should have nothing to do with it. It’s either a good case or not.”
Toensing and diGenova, a husband-and-wife law team, declined to comment through a spokesman. The Justice Department also declined to comment.
Giuliani was an attractive ally for Firtash. Once renowned for his work as a U.S. prosecutor and a New York mayor, he was a close adviser to Trump and became his personal lawyer in April 2018. He also brought extensive contacts in Republican-leaning legal circles.
A Ukrainian industrialist with natural gas interests, Firtash was looking to get out from under five years of legal headaches in the U.S. Federal prosecutors have accused him of corruption and racketeering conspiracy. He’s accused of participating in a scheme to bribe Indian officials to secure titanium that would be sold to Boeing Co.
Arrested in Vienna on the U.S. charges in March 2014, he posted $174 million in bail and pledged to remain in Austria during extradition proceedings. The Justice Department has described Firtash as an associate of “Russian organized crime.” He has denied all the charges.
His aides have argued the case is politically motivated, designed to keep him from influencing Ukraine after the country’s pro-Russian president was ousted in 2014. After joining the Firtash team, DiGenova and Toensing sought information related to Biden to bolster the idea that the case was political, the people familiar with the matter said.
In five years of court battles, Firtash’s legal team has successfully beaten back U.S. efforts to bring him to trial in Chicago. The tide appeared to turn over the summer when the Justice Department won a ruling in Austria securing his extradition. But his legal team there filed new evidence asserting that two key witnesses had recanted. His extradition is on hold.
On a separate track, his U.S. legal team continues to challenge the case’s legitimacy. By last summer, Firtash decided he needed reinforcements. In July, he parted ways with Lanny Davis, a longtime ally of Bill and Hillary Clinton, both Democrats. Within Firtash’s circle, those ties weren’t considered helpful in dealing with Trump’s Justice Department, according to the people.
Tapping pro-Trump lawyers like diGenova and Toensing looked like a useful way to help get his case thrown out, the people said. The legal duo had considered representing Trump during the Mueller probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. DiGenova has appeared on Fox News attacking Mueller’s investigation.
In late September, Fox News reported that the pair was working “off the books” with Giuliani to dig up dirt on the Bidens in Ukraine. That mission was shared by Parnas and Igor Fruman, associates of Giuliani who helped set up meetings with Ukrainian officials. Along with Parnas, Fruman was arrested last week and charged with campaign finance violations. Both men had one-way tickets to Vienna. Giuliani also had a trip scheduled to Vienna.
Efforts have already been made to shield some of the work by Parnas and Fruman. The pair assisted DiGenova and Toensing in their law practice, according to John Dowd, a former Trump lawyer now representing them. In a letter to lawmakers, Dowd also wrote that Parnas and Fruman assisted Giuliani in his legal work for Trump, arguing that the two should be protected under attorney-client privilege rules.
Toensing has said her firm hired Parnas as a paid translator, though people familiar with Firtash’s business say he has plenty of translators and key aides who speak fluent English.
A spokesman for Firtash said he had no contractual or other commercial relationship with Parnas or Fruman.
There was one additional connection that DiGenova and Toensing had that people in the Firtash camp considered potentially useful, according to one of the people. Their son Brady Toensing, the former head of the Vermont Republican Party, had joined the Justice Department as senior counsel in its Office of Legal Policy in June. In that position, Brady Toensing has no connection to the Firtash case.
The witness statement from Shokin remains a curiosity. The ex-prosecutor said in his affidavit that he had no evidence of crimes committed by Firtash, a statement intended to help in Firtash’s Austrian legal proceedings. It also included Shokin’s unsupported allegation that Biden attempted to interfere with an investigation of Burisma Holdings, a private natural gas company that had the vice president’s son Hunter on the board.
U.S. and Ukrainian officials have said there was no active probe into Burisma at the time.
Biden had threatened to withhold $1 billion in U.S. loan guarantees unless Shokin was fired because of his failure to tackle corruption. Biden’s action was proposed by State Department officials and supported by the European Union.
(Updates with CNN report on State Department official’s testimony in eighth paragraph)
--With assistance from Greg Farrell, David Voreacos and Boris Groendahl.
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