As Democrats plot the next chapter in impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump, a debt-ridden Florida businessman who the US president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani used as a go-between to conduct affairs in Ukraine, has emerged as a focal point — and a wild card.
Lev Parnas worked closely with Mr Giuliani in his efforts to pursue investigations in Ukraine against Mr Trump’s political rival, former vice-president Joe Biden. Mr Parnas also has close links to a Ukrainian oligarch, Dmitry Firtash, who is attracting fresh scrutiny for possible involvement in Mr Giuliani’s campaign.
After initially closing ranks with his patrons, Mr Parnas earlier this month apparently had a change of heart and signalled his willingness to co-operate with the impeachment proceedings.
Democrats on the House intelligence committee are discussing whether or not to invite Mr Parnas to testify, according to a person familiar with the matter, but are unlikely to reach a decision until after the Thanksgiving holiday.
Mr Parnas has unique standing as a central figure in the drama — both in Ukraine and Washington. Yet he may make a less than ideal witness: he is currently under house arrest and awaiting criminal trial after he and an associate, Igor Fruman, were indicted in October on charges of violating campaign finance laws.
According to prosecutors, the men created a shell company to mask the true source of hundreds of thousands of dollars in foreign donations they made last year to political groups aligned with Mr Trump — contributions that brought them from relative anonymity to rubbing shoulders with the president and Mr Giuliani.
The degree to which Mr Parnas has shifted alliances has been dramatic. His lawyer, David Bondy, tweeted on Sunday: “He’s not afraid of #POTUS or polonium, hopes to testify under oath — unlike #RudyGiuliani — and to be subjected to cross-examination under penalties of perjury. #LetLevSpeak.”
Meanwhile, Mr Parnas has also created difficulties for Devin Nunes, the Republican chair of the House intelligence committee. He has sought to implicate the Californian congressman in the campaign against Mr Biden by claiming that Mr Nunes travelled to Europe last year to meet a disgraced former Ukrainian prosecutor who has blamed the former vice-president for his sacking.
Throughout the impeachment hearings, Mr Nunes has led the defence of Mr Trump, often repeating the president’s claims — including that Ukraine, as opposed to Moscow, may have been to blame for meddling in the 2016 US election.
Speaking to Fox News on Sunday, Mr Nunes was dismissive of Mr Parnas’ claim without directly denying it. “Everybody’s going to know all the facts, but I think you can understand, I can’t compete by trying to debate this out with the public media when 90 per cent of the media are totally corrupt,” he said.
During two weeks of hearings, a succession of witnesses — many of them longtime foreign service officers — laid out a scheme in which Mr Giuliani and his allies forced out the sitting US ambassador in Kyiv so they could pursue a back channel to a newly elected Ukrainian president.
Their goal, according to Democrats, was to convince the new administration in Kyiv to announce an investigation of Mr Biden — Mr Trump’s political rival — and his son, Hunter, who sat on the board of a local energy company. The Trump administration pressured the Ukrainians by withholding desperately needed military aid.
Mr Giuliani has denied there was any “quid pro quo” for the resumption of the military aid, and that the administration was merely interested in cracking down on corruption in Ukraine.
Like the president he serves, the former New York City mayor may also be coming under legal pressure for his conduct in Ukraine: several US media outlets, led by the Wall Street Journal, reported on Monday that his consulting business was the subject of subpoenas from federal prosecutors in Manhattan.
One issue prosecutors are examining, according to the reports, was whether Mr Giuliani registered as a foreign agent. He did not return a call for comment. A spokesman for the US attorney in Manhattan declined to comment.
In addition to Mr Giuliani, Mr Parnas also has links to Mr Firtash, who grew wealthy as a middleman handling Russian gas shipments to Ukraine, and has been fighting extradition to the US on foreign bribery charges.
In July, Mr Firtash made a change to his US legal team, hiring Joseph diGenova and Victoria Toensing, a husband-and-wife duo are regular pro-Trump talking heads on Fox News. Mr Parnas helped bring Mr Firtash to his new lawyers, and then acted as his translator and consultant.
That has aroused suspicions Mr Firtash may have been hoping to avoid extradition by helping Mr Giuliani and Mr Parnas with their campaign against Mr Biden.
“There is growing interest in Mr Firtash and what role he played,” Democratic congressman Jamie Raskin, a member of one of the committees leading the Trump impeachment inquiry, told journalists recently.
Mark Corallo, a spokesperson for Mr diGenova and Ms Toensing, insisted that they had only taken the case because they believed in Mr Firtash’s innocence, and were not involved in any scheme to help dig up dirt on Mr Biden.
Of Mr Parnas, he said: “He was someone who spoke the language and also someone who understood the political situation on the ground in Ukraine.”
Additional reporting by Aime Williams in Washington