DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Two associates of President Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, have been arrested on campaign finance charges. Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman have reportedly been helping Giuliani in his effort to dig up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden. The two men were about to board an international flight with one-way tickets to leave the United States when they were detained on Wednesday.
The indictment alleges that the two Soviet-born business partners set up a shell corporation to funnel $340,000 in foreign money to U.S. politicians and influence U.S.-Ukraine relations. Court papers say they also pushed to recall then-U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman described the charges against these two men at a press conference.
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GEOFFREY BERMAN: Protecting the integrity of our elections and protecting our elections from unlawful foreign influence are core functions of our campaign finance laws. And as this office has made clear, we will not hesitate to investigate and prosecute those who engage in criminal conduct that draws into question the integrity of our political process. And I want to add that this investigation is continuing.
GREENE: All right. Let's talk about this. In our studios this morning, we have Trevor Potter. He's president of the Campaign Legal Center. They first alerted the Federal Elections Commission to this scheme last year. He is also the former Republican chair of the Federal Elections Commission, so someone who has followed these types of things very closely. Mr. Potter, thanks for coming into the studios.
TREVOR POTTER: Thank you. Good to be with you.
GREENE: So your organization filed a complaint against these two associates of Rudy Giuliani a year ago. How did you first learn about their activities?
POTTER: Well, part of what we do is review carefully campaign finance reports. They made this 300-and-some-thousand dollar contribution to the Trump superPAC, a organization that, among other things, is supporting President Trump's reelection. And there would - been a press report that noted the size of the contribution. And our people took a look at it to see where it came from because it was listed as coming from a company, GEP. It took a very quick search to discover the company had been created about two weeks earlier, which raises the question, well, where did they get all that money in two weeks?
We then took a look. It had no website. It quickly became clear it was a shell company - meaning, it didn't do any business. But who was it? Well, we were lucky because we were able to run through the computers the address of the company and see if anyone else turned up at that address. And sure enough, these two Ukrainian-Americans had been listing that as their address for personal contributions they'd been making.
So we filed a complaint saying that the violation of election law is what's technically known as a contribution in the name of another, which means they hid the true source of the money.
GREENE: In terms of who may have been complicit in this, how far have we gotten in learning that, in terms of whether Trump's superPAC, people involved in his campaign? I mean, do we know who knew where this money was coming from and who didn't know?
POTTER: Well, to start with, of course, we don't know where this money actually came from, even in yesterday's indictment. What they say - what the Justice Department says and we told the FEC a year and a half ago is it didn't come from GEP. It looks as if it came to these two men via another company they controlled from someone who is listed in the complaint without a name. But it appears to be somebody who has a business of connecting wealthy foreigners with U.S. real estate. So it may well be itself foreign money. It may be conduited (ph) through that individual from someone else...
GREENE: If it's foreign money, this would be illegal. This would be breaking U.S. election campaign law.
POTTER: Well, there are lots of things here that are illegal, but absolutely. What we do know is that the superPAC broke the law here. They're saying, oh, we didn't do anything wrong. Well, the reality is they knew this money did not come from a company called GEP because the indictment says it never touched GEP. It wasn't just that it was funneled through the shell company; it never got there. It came from another company these two people controlled.
GREENE: So this is all very complicated. I just wanted to underline one thing. One of the suggestions here is that money from people in another country may have been going to Donald Trump's superPAC. How worried should the president be here?
POTTER: The problem we have in this country is that we have a lot of secret money - what the press often calls dark money - going into campaigns, into superPACs through conduits. That's what this case is all about at an election law level. I think the president's problem here is that he's got the person he claims is his personal lawyer with his fingerprints all over this, trying to gin up the firing of the U.S. ambassador, using these Ukrainian Americans, who it's now clear have broken the election laws.
GREENE: Well, let me ask you - in terms of President Trump here, I mean, your organization has suggested that he violated the law in his phone call with Ukraine's president by asking for what was essentially a foreign contribution to help his campaign. But here we have the Justice Department focusing more on associates of Giuliani and not on that phone call. Why would the Justice Department make that decision?
POTTER: Well, first of all, there are different parts of the Justice Department. This is an investigation run out of the Southern District of New York which has been apparently tracking these two people for a while. They got our FEC complaint. We had a supplement. So they're focused on these people as opposed to the Washington central office.
The other thing that I think is going on here is that, often, prosecutors will start with somebody smaller and try to work their way into the center of the conspiracy. And the indictment refers to a conspiracy. It says there are other people involved who are not listed in the indictment. We don't know if they're looking at Rudy Giuliani. But what we do know here is that these individuals have information, which they will undoubtedly now want to provide as a way of dealing with these very serious federal crimes they've been charged with.
GREENE: Trevor Potter, thanks so much.
POTTER: Thank you.
GREENE: He's former chair of the FEC. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.