The leader of the Orthodox Jewish organization that bestowed honors on two South Florida men sought for questioning in the congressional impeachment inquiry said Thursday he was unaware of the pair’s legal and political entanglements.
In a response to questions from McClatchy and the Miami Herald, Farley Weiss, president of the board of directors of the National Council of Young Israel, acknowledged his organization was “unaware of any potential issues” about Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas. They are Soviet-born emigrees living in South Florida who have since been thrust into the spotlight in the wake of stories about Rudy Giuliani’s efforts in Ukraine on behalf of President Donald Trump.
The Associated Press described them as Giuliani’s “Florida fixers” amid reporting in the Herald and elsewhere on how Parnas and Fruman helped Trump’s personal attorney connect with influential individuals in Ukraine as part of his mission to get that country to investigate Joe Biden, the president’s potential 2020 rival.
“In light of the circumstances, we will enhance our review of honorees at our future dinners,” Weiss said in an email.
New York gastroenterologist Dr. Joseph Frager, the group’s 1st vice president, last Friday described the men to the Herald as philanthropists. A visit by them to his home, accompanied by Giuliani, he said, was part of a fundraising effort that culminated in an award for the two.
Their philanthrophic impulses, however, did not extend to the organization that feted them at a March 31 gala.
“While we were hoping to receive money from them before or after the dinner for their being honored we have not received any money from them for their being honored,” Weiss said.
Neither Frager nor Weiss provided any detail on how long the group, which counts 175 Orthodox synagogues as members, had a relationship with the men and who made the introduction.
In his e-mail, however, Weiss took issue with an earlier Herald story that described the group as increasingly partisan.
“We reject that accusation. NCYI priorities are issues concerning the Jewish people and Israel and we rarely comment on issues in which these issues are not directly at issue,” Weiss wrote.
However, just weeks before the dinner that honored Fruman and Parnas with the group’s first-ever Chovevei Zion award, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency carried a story about a letter sent by 22 member synagogues asking the National Council of Young Israel to “immediately cease making all political pronouncements.”
In the statement admonishing Young Israel leadership for partisanship, the synagogues called on Weiss and others to “develop and publicize a transparent process for soliciting input” from its membership.
Fruman and Parnas are under congressional investigation for opening doors in Ukraine to Giuliani earlier this year as he sought to get Ukrainian authorities to launch an investigation into former Vice President Biden’s son Hunter and the son’s appointment to the board of directors of energy firm Burisma Holdings.
A recently released transcript of a July phone call of President Donald Trump appearing to pressure his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate the Bidens triggered the rare impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives.
Neither Fruman nor Parnas is well known in South Florida or elsewhere in the United States. Giuliani has described them as clients but hasn’t said what he does for them or why.
In a May 18 tweet that presaged what has unfolded, however, Giuliani tweeted about them as he attacked wealthy Ukrainian businessman Igor Kolomoisky, who has Israeli citizenship, headed the United Jewish Community of Ukraine and is a fierce critic of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which nationalized his assets after the 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
“The notorious oligarch returned from a long exile and immediately threatened and defamed two Americans, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman,” read Giuliani’s tweet. “They are my clients and I have advised them to press charges.”
A May 22 story in the Ukrainian publication Strana.ua followed days later.
Giuliani gave an interview in Paris to the publication and called on Ukrainian authorities to investigate Kolomoisky for making threats against Parnas and Fruman, allegedly forcing them to flee Ukraine.
“These are American citizens, businessmen. I don’t know the motives why, in the very first interview after returning to Ukraine from a long exile, he began to denigrate them,” Giuliani told Strana. “I have no idea why he is so angry. But he must answer for his words.”
Neither Fruman nor Parnas — business partners and big GOP donors — have responded to requests this week for comments, directly or through legal representatives. Parnas briefly spoke to the Miami Herald last Thursday .
Giuiliani, Fruman and Parnas have all been contacted by congressional committees involved in the impeachment inquiry. It’s unclear if they intend to comply or risk facing subpoenas.
Fruman and Parnas are represented by John M. Dowd, an influential Washington attorney who helped defend President Trump during part of the recently concluded Russia probe by Special Counsel Robert Mueller III.
Guiliani is represented by longtime friend and veteran Miami attorney Jon A. Sale.
In the Strana interview, Giuiliani did define his role in Ukraine as unconnected to the White House, an issue his lawyer may eventually have to confront.
“I am a private person and I do not represent the U.S. government position,” Giuliani told the Ukrainian publication.
He had previously told the New York Times his efforts had Trump’s support.
“He basically knows what I’m doing, sure, as his lawyer,” Giuliani said.