This story was co-published with WNYC.
The Ukraine scandal is mostly viewed through the prism of politics — an attempt by President Donald Trump to gain an advantage over a political opponent. But, as most things are, it’s also about money — and we found lots of it flowing between key players in the scandal.
On this week’s episode of “Trump, Inc.,” we follow the money.
First, Let’s Meet Our Cast of Ukraine Players
Richest among them is Dmitry Firtash, an oligarch who has been battling to avoid an extradition flight to Chicago, where he faces federal charges of bribery. The Department of Justice has described Firtash as an “upper-echelon” associate “of Russian organized crime.” (He denies the charges and says the prosecution is politically motivated.)
Firtash made his fortune as a behind-the-scenes middleman selling heavily marked-up Russian gas to Europe. So he wasn’t happy when Vice President Joe Biden pushed Ukraine to roll back corruption. After Biden gave a speech in Kyiv, Ukraine, in 2015 saying the energy sector “needs to be competitive, ruled by market principles — not sweetheart deals,” Firtash called it “repulsive.”
Firtash hired attorneys Victoria Toensing and Joe diGenova, who frequently appear on TV defending Trump over Ukraine. The two also represent journalist John Solomon, whose stories ended up spreading Ukraine disinformation.
And then there’s Lev Parnas, who translated for Firtash’s legal team and is an associate of Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani. “I’m the best-paid interpreter in the world,” Parnas reportedly said.
Parnas and his partner Igor Fruman were indicted in October over allegedly funneling foreign money into U.S. elections. (They deny the charges.)
Firtash and the rest of the Ukraine players have all been busy with a flurry of intertwined business ventures. Let’s take a look:
Business Venture No. 1: Natural Gas and the Firing of an Ambassador
At the same time Parnas and Fruman were suddenly becoming big Republican donors, they were trying to leverage those new political connections to advance their needs in the natural gas industry in Ukraine. Their goals would have been very profitable for Firtash.
It didn’t work. But they did get something else they were pushing for, specifically, the firing of U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. “They were interested in having a different ambassador at post, I guess for — because they wanted to have business dealings in Ukraine, or additional business dealings,” Yovanovitch testified. “I didn’t understand that, because nobody at the embassy had ever met those two individuals.”
Business Venture No. 2: Submarines, Yachts, Real Estate and Other Things Rich People Like
Fruman, we’ve learned, has an interesting company, Otrada Luxury Group, that appears to be catering to those with lots of disposable income. A partial list of goods, according to the company’s brochure: jewelry and expensive watches, yachts, speedboats, private planes, high-end real estate and, of course, submarines and amphibious vehicles.
We went to the U.S. address listed on a brochure. It’s a rent-by-the-hour office. No one there seemed to know of Fruman or Otrada.
Business Venture No. 3: Cybersecurity Consulting Starring Giuliani
An intriguingly named company owned by Parnas, Fraud Guarantee, paid Giuliani $500,000 for consulting. The Wall Street Journal dug into the company and could find no actual business or customers. Giuliani said the money came from a domestic source, but he declined to say from whom.
Business Ventures No. 4 and No. 5: Giuliani’s Podcasts
As ProPublica has reported, Giuliani was also working on a podcast with The Hill, the publication that ended up passing along Ukraine disinformation. Giuliani said he was “never paid” for the work and said it was a “perfectly legitimate situation.” The Hill said it had been planning a “podcast network with a multitude of political voices from all sides.”
Although nothing came of that effort, Giuliani is still apparently looking to get into the podcast game. He was overheard during a recent lunch discussing a potential podcast focused on the impeachment. “He is considering several options,” a Giuliani spokeswoman told CNN. “Many Americans want to hear directly from Rudy Giuliani.”
And Then There Is the Jewish Refugee Charity
Fruman is also at the helm of a U.S.-based nonprofit that raises money for a Jewish refugee settlement outside Kyiv. The nonprofit, American Friends of Anatevka, sponsored a trip Giuliani was planning to take to Ukraine to dig up dirt on Trump’s opponents. Giuliani is also the settlement’s honorary mayor. American Friends of Anatevka is currently advertising a million-dollar match for donations. Its tax returns show it had less than $1,500 in income in 2017.