A Mystery $325,000 To A Pro-Trump Super PAC Confounds Experts

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September 11, 2019 4:15 p.m.
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A pro-Trump Super PAC. $325,000. Florida. Rudy Giuliani.

It’s all the makings of politics-as-usual in the Trump era. But in this case, something went awry.

A $325,000 contribution to America First Action, the super PAC, is now facing widespread scrutiny amid a simple but persistent question: Where did the money come from?

Nobody has an answer.

The cash flowed to America First Action in May 2018, in a single contribution made from a Delaware-registered firm called Global Energy Producers. That drew attention, in part because the company was created five weeks before the $325,000 contribution, and in part because it had no apparent business activity.

But the picture became far stranger after a lawsuit revealed that it didn’t appear Global Energy Producers made the contribution in the first place.

Rather, wire transfer records suggest, an entirely separate company owned by a client of Rudy Giuliani’s made the donation, but that company, too, has no discernible business activity.

At this point attorneys examining the records and campaign finance experts have been unable to determine the ultimate origin of the $325,000.

There are more questions than answers at this stage. We don’t know the ultimate donor, and we don’t know why a corporate contribution like this — an ordinary example of political giving — would have gone through what appears to be a convoluted shell game. The ultimate origin of political contributions has to be disclosed under federal campaign finance law, and it’s also unclear who — or why — someone took the risk of veiling the source of the cash.

America First Action denied any impropriety to TPM, saying in a statement that “America First Action takes our legal obligations seriously and scrupulously complies with the law.”

But the story introduces a cast of characters from the intersection of Trumpworld, Giulianiworld, and Ukraineworld that provide a backdrop to the mystery of how the $325,000 wound up in GOP coffers.

The person most closely tied to the $325,000 is a man named Lev Parnas, a Miami businessman and Mar-a-Lago attendee.

The New York Times reported in May that Parnas and an associate — Igor Fruman —  were deputized by Giuliani to lobby Ukrainian officials for dirt on Joe Biden. America’s mayor himself has referred to the pair as his “clients” in relation to their Ukraine efforts.

At the same time as Parnas was working with Giuliani, he was also making use of his recently founded company — Global Energy Producers.

Separate reporting indicates that, months after a donation to America First Action from Global Energy Partners showed up on Federal Election Commission records, Parnas used the company in a bid to secure a stake in Ukraine’s lucrative gas export market.

So how did this $325,000 contribution from Parnas’s Ukraine-focused energy firm end up as the center of a campaign finance mystery?

In one sense, the answer lies in Hollywood in 2010, when Parnas was trying to raise funds for a planned action flick called “Memory of a Killer.”

The movie was never created and, in fact, the only discernible result of Parnas’s activities from the time appears to be a series of lawsuits around the country from an investor who claims to have been swindled by the endeavor. He is suing to claw back $500,000 he gave to Parnas, claiming that he lured him — including through a dinner with planned “Memory of a Killer” star Jack Nicholson — to invest the half million in the movie.

After seeing reports that Global Energy Producers had made the $325,000 contribution, and knowing that the company was linked to Parnas, the investor sued him in federal court in Florida in January 2019, alleging that the contribution was fraudulent and that America First Action should give him the contribution.

But here’s the problem: after issuing subpoenas, the investor found that Global Energy Producers didn’t make the contribution; rather, another Parnas-linked firm called Aaron Investments I seems to have made the transfer.

This leads to the nub of the mystery.

Attorneys for the investor — and outside observers — contend that Aaron Investments I has no real business activity. The investor’s lawyers have argued in court that the firm had no significant assets in the weeks leading up to the contribution.

That, they say, changed two days before the contribution took place in May 2018. Then, $1.26 million was transferred from the client trust account of a Miami real estate attorney named Russ Jacobs into Aaron Investment’s coffers.

Two days later, the $325,000 was wired to America First Action.

Brendan Fischer, federal reform director at the Campaign Legal Center, filed an as-of-yet unresolved complaint with the FEC over the contribution last year, accusing Parnas of laundering the contribution.

Fischer told TPM that the ultimate origin of the contribution — the client trust account — is shrouded by attorney-client privilege.

“Where the money from the client trust account came from is not clear,” said Fischer.

Tony Andre, an attorney for the aggrieved film investor, recently got access to documents from America First Action about the contribution.

But in an interview with TPM, he, too, said that the origin of the funds was unknown.

In any case, and like many other political donors, Parnas appears to have gotten access to top GOP politicos as the money from Aaron Investments flowed to the pro-Trump Super PAC.

Social media posts show Parnas receiving access to top GOP politicos at America First Action-branded events.

That includes a photo op with President Donald Trump, Parnas, and his son on June 19, 2018 at his D.C. hotel, according to the son’s Instagram account. America First Action senior adviser and White House press secretary Sean Spicer also made an appearance.

That event came one month after the heavily scrutinized $325,000 contribution was made.

Parnas did not reply to requests for comment via his attorney and via social media profiles.

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