NEW YORK (Reuters) - Two foreign-born Florida businessmen who helped U.S. President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, investigate political rival Joe Biden pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to illegally funneling money to a pro-Trump election committee and other politicians.
Ukraine-born Lev Parnas and Belarus-born Igor Fruman entered their not guilty pleas to federal campaign finance charges before U.S. District Judge Paul Oetken in Manhattan.
Federal prosecutors have accused Parnas and Fruman of using a shell company to donate $325,000 to the pro-Trump committee, America First Action, and raising money for former U.S. Representative Pete Sessions of Texas as part of an effort to have the Republican president remove the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
The arrest of Parnas and Fruman at a Washington-area airport earlier this month, as they prepared to fly out of the United States on one-way tickets, was yet another political hazard for Trump amid a fast-moving impeachment inquiry by the Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives.
Both Parnas and Fruman are free on bail.
The two men have been charged with conspiracy, making false statements to authorities and falsifying business records.
Joseph Bondy, a lawyer for Parnas, told reporters outside the courthouse he looked forward to proceeding based on the evidence, not “a smear campaign that’s been driven by self- serving and misleading leaks apparently from the highest levels of our government.”
Parnas himself also denied the charges against him.
“I will be vindicated,” he said.
Prosecutors are examining Giuliani’s interactions with the two men, according to a source familiar with the matter. Assistant U.S. Attorney Rebekah Donaleski, one of the prosecutors in the case, said at Wednesday’s hearing that an investigation was continuing.
Giuliani has said Parnas and Fruman helped his efforts in Ukraine to investigate Biden and Biden’s son Hunter. The younger Biden had served as a director of a Ukrainian energy company.
Giuliani has denied wrongdoing.
Edward McMahon, another one of Parnas’ lawyers, said at Wednesday’s court hearing he believed some documents obtained by prosecutors in the case could be protected by attorney-client privilege or executive privilege, because Giuliani had been Parnas’ attorney and is Trump’s personal attorney.
Donaleski, one of the prosecutors, said there was already a legal team in place to deal with privilege issues.
Prosecutors said Parnas and Fruman funneled money from an unnamed Russian businessman to political candidates in several states to help the businessman obtain permits needed for a proposed marijuana business, which never materialized. U.S. law prohibits foreign donations to political campaigns.
Prosecutors say Parnas and Fruman committed to raise $20,000 for Sessions as part of an effort to get Trump to remove U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.
That effort was carried out at the request of at least one Ukrainian official, prosecutors said.
Trump ordered Yovanovitch removed in May. Yovanovitch testified in the House impeachment inquiry on Oct. 11.
A former Sessions staffer, Caroline Boothe, is cooperating with the Manhattan prosecutors’ investigation, her lawyer confirmed on Wednesday. Boothe’s cooperation was first reported by The Hill.
Sessions previously confirmed he too was cooperating with the investigation.
The impeachment inquiry is centered on Trump’s request in a July phone call for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Biden, a former vice president and a top contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. The request came after Trump had withheld $391 million in security aid to Ukraine, which he later released.
Democrats have accused Trump of pressuring a vulnerable foreign ally to dig up dirt on a domestic political opponent for his own political benefit.
Trump has denied wrongdoing and described the impeachment probe as a partisan smear.
Two other men charged in the marijuana business scheme, Andrey Kukushkin and David Correia, pleaded not guilty last Thursday.
Reporting by Brendan Pierson in New York; Additional reporting by Karen Freifeld; Editing by Tom Brown and Peter Cooney