Arrest of Rudy Giuliani associates ensnares 'Congressman 1'
WASHINGTON — Businessmen with ties to Rudy Giuliani lobbied a U.S. congressman in 2018 for help ousting the American ambassador to Ukraine around the same time they committed to raising money for the lawmaker.
An indictment unsealed Thursday identified the lawmaker only as "Congressman 1." But the donations described in the indictment match campaign finance reports for former Rep. Pete Sessions, a Texas Republican who lost his re-election bid in November 2018.
Sessions, 64, has denied wrongdoing. But the federal indictment alleges "Congressman 1" was part of what prosecutors described as a coordinated effort to remove Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch at the behest of an unnamed Ukrainian official.
Sessions, who has been weighing a political comeback, now finds himself entangled in the impeachment investigation centered on President Donald Trump's dealings with Ukraineas well as Giuliani's relationships in the former Soviet republic.
The indictment was made public Thursday following the arrest of two Florida businessmen with ties to Giuliani. It alleges that Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman leveraged a flurry of GOP political donations in a campaign to force Yovanovitch's removal, an effort prosecutors say was aided by laundered foreign money.
By Friday, other GOP candidates who received money pledged to donate or return contributions from Parnas and Fruman, including Kentucky Rep. Andy Barr and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose spokeswoman said he would return $50,000.
Parnas and Fruman's outsized political giving allowed the two relatively unknown entrepreneurs to quickly win access to the highest levels of the Republican Party — including face-to-face meetings with Trump at the White House and Mar-a-Lago.
On May 9, 2018, Parnas posted a photo of himself and his business partner David Correia with Sessions in his Capitol Hill office, with the caption "Hard at work !!"
Later that same day, Sessions sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seeking Yovanovitch's dismissal because he had "notice of concrete evidence" that she had "spoken privately and repeatedly about her disdain for the current Administration."
Campaign finance records show Parnas and Fruman later contributed $2,700 apiece to Session's campaign, the maximum allowed individual contribution.
Sessions said Thursday that he will vigorously defend himself against any allegations of wrongdoing.
"I was first approached by these individuals for a meeting about the strategic need for Ukraine to become energy independent," Sessions said, according to a written statement. "There was no request in that meeting and I took no action."
Sessions added that "several congressional colleagues" were the source of the allegations in his letter claiming that Yovanovitch had disparaged Trump, not Parnas and Fruman. He also sought to distance himself Giuliani, who he described as a friend of more than 30 years.
"I do not know what his business or legal activities in Ukraine have been," the ex-congressman said of the president's personal lawyer.
Parnas and Fruman were arrested Wednesday evening as they attempted to board an overseas flight at Dulles International Airport in Washington. Correia and another man, a Ukrainian-born U.S. citizen named Andrey Kukushkin, are also charged in the case.
Though Parnas posted a May 2018 photo of himself with a smiling Trump during a private dinner at the White House also attended by Fruman, the president denied having any idea who the two arrested men are.
"I don't know those gentlemen," said Trump, speaking on the South Lawn of the White House. "Now it's possible that I have a picture with them, because I have a picture with everybody ... I don't know them. I don't know about them. I don't know what they do. ... Maybe they were clients of Rudy. You have to ask Rudy."