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Texts in illegal ‘straw donor’ case further complicate Laxalt’s Igor and Lev problem

John L. Smith
John L. Smith
Opinion
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Photo of Igor Fruman, Adam Laxalt and Lev Parnas.

The embarrassing picture that’s already painting a thousand words in Nevada Republican Adam Laxalt’s latest political campaign is now augmented by text messages.

Laxalt’s race to unseat Democrat incumbent Catherine Cortez Masto is shadowed by the grip-and-grin photograph he posed for at a Venetian fundraiser during his 2018 gubernatorial campaign flanked by accused campaign finance schemers Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman.

In a business where impressions matter, communications emerging from an illegal campaign contribution trial in federal court are not helpful.  The “straw donor” case is revealing confident men who believed their donations to Laxalt would throw open doors to their plans to enter Nevada’s lucrative marijuana market despite the fact that they had already missed the legal deadline. They also made donations to Republican attorney general candidate Wes Duncan.

Laxalt and Duncan would go on to lose their elections, but Parnas, Fruman and others wound up on government and press radar for their suspicious political generosity.

The Soviet-born Parnas and Ukraine-born investor Andrey Kukushkin are on trial in the Southern District of New York for making illegal campaign contributions to further their business interests. It’s alleged Parnas and Fruman were funded with up to $1 million by high-flying Russian businessman Andrey Muraviev.

Prosecutors haven’t alleged that Laxalt and other politicians on the receiving end of the political largesse knew the money came from a prohibited source. Moneyman Muraviev is not charged in the case.

Fruman pleaded guilty in September to soliciting illegal campaign contributions. Fellow co-defendant David Correia in October 2020 pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy and making false statements to the Federal Election Commission. Communications produced this week from Parnas and Fruman reveal Correia and Fruman as central figures in the straw donor conspiracy. Duncan and Laxalt came out with statements saying they returned the money. 

The text messages came to light in a letter submitted by prosecutors Monday to presiding U.S. District Judge J. Paul Oetken, in which they sought to bat down defense arguments that proposed summary charts would prejudice the jury. The charts show the chronology of communications between the defendants at key moments in the alleged conspiracy. Illustrating phone, email, text and social media evidence sequentially is commonly used to help jurors understand facts in evidence.

Defense contentions aside, some of the texts appear to reveal their knowledge that they were making illegal foreign donor contributions. An exchange between America First Action director Joseph Ahearn and Parnas in May 2018 with a link to an ABC News article headlined “Special counsel probing donations with foreign connection to Trump inauguration” is interesting. Ahearn’s personal history of fundraising on behalf of Trump and Laxalt’s own undying fealty to the former president add to the intrigue.

The defense called such texts prejudicial. I suspect the jurors may deem it evidence of knowledge of wrongdoing.

The prosecution appears to think so. From the letter: 

That is hardly sensationalist, but it does plainly inform any reader that campaign-finance conduits and efforts to mask the actual sources of political contributions are “illegal.” … The defendants thus cannot reasonably ask the court to find that a risk of unfair prejudice from this article—or the other disputed evidence.”

Although the texts also raise the specter of whether Parnas was a better hustler than closer – Kukushkin to Fruman, July 19: “Igor, we are going in circles with Leva” – they also reveal nothing short of a relentless pursuit of a political inside move that was backed by hundreds of thousands of foreign dollars.

By July 25, 2018, Parnas had received the bad news that the Federal Election Commission had lodged a complaint alleging he, Fruman, and their front business Global Energy Producers had violated the Federal Election Campaign Act by making contributions in another person’s name.

Instead of taking that as a sign, they boldly doubled down. Did they imagine their connections in Nevada and in the Trump administration would eliminate the annoyance of an FEC violation?

In September, the group’s Nevada plan was heating up. By Sept. 5, text exchanges by Parnas, Correia, and Ahearn discuss their Las Vegas reconnaissance trip. Correia talks about the effort to coordinate “the attorney general meeting …” It is unclear whether the attorney general referred to was then-AG Laxalt or AG candidate Duncan.

It becomes clearer when on the same day Ahearn sends Parnas and Correia an invitation to a fundraiser two days later for Laxalt, “with special guest Mike Pence.”

In a separate text, Ahearn adds self-assuredly, “Let me know if you guys want to go. I can make sure laxalt speaks highly”. 

In what would become something of his trademark move, Parnas responds with a “thumbs up” emoji.

More planning ensues the following day as Kukushkin mentions the attendance at “Friday’s Laxalt for Nevada event with Vice President Mike Pence” in a message to Parnas, Fruman, Correia and others. It was at this event that Laxalt is supposed to have met with the two Eastern European amigos, with whom he would eventually be photographed. 

Although Laxalt’s name is not mentioned, ensuing conversations among the alleged co-conspirators focus on concealing the origin of the money they plan to spread around in Nevada, New York and elsewhere.

Then on Sept. 11, Kukushkin sends a message to his associate Slava Krasov, describing the friends in high places the group was making. “I had a good meeting with Attorney General of Nevada and he is willing to help in Vegas.” The message is accompanied by a photo of Kukushkin and Laxalt.

Did Laxalt meet privately with co-defendant moneyman Kukushkin, who according to the indictment admits he met with several Nevada officials?

It appears so. I just can’t remember Laxalt mentioning it before. Perhaps he’ll explain everything the next time he gives a press conference. (Sometimes I just crack myself up.)

Although it’s only prudent to question the veracity of the source now that he’s a convicted felon, on Sept. 13, Fruman messaged Kukushkin with what can be described as genuine confidence: “… It’s important to transfer 500 … The man whom you met with us in Nevada called, said that he was personally waiting for us with his deputy, who would take over from him when he becomes governor, to discuss our issue! … one can’t say there is not money… the transfer must be done tomorrow morning!!!!!”

For the record, Fruman and his five exclamation points were talking about $500,000 for the marijuana project. He was also talking about Laxalt and Duncan, in line, respectively, to become governor and the state’s highest law enforcement officer. By Sept. 18 Fruman messaged Parnas and Correia with a Chase bank note regarding “incoming wire transfer of (USD) $500,000.”

Another message was sent four days later to the interested parties from Muraviev, who appears to traffic in intrigue, and included a photo of the Time magazine cover with the title, “How Putin’s Oligarchs got inside the Trump Team.”

As expected, attaboy emojis from Fruman and Parnas followed.

By October, the 2018 election was just weeks away and Kukushkin and his insiders were planning another trip to Las Vegas after meeting with Laxalt’s college roommate Florida Gov. Rick DeSantis in Miami. Fruman tells Kukushkin. “We need to open an account urgently and to deposit 500 [thousand] there,” he said, referring to the upcoming meeting with DeSantis. “We have to fork over a check for 250 [thousand] to him at the event.”

The Las Vegas fundraising would take place on Oct. 20 at a make-or-break time in Laxalt’s gubernatorial race. With his own VIP badge, Parnas, ever the Trump lapdog, followed the president to Elko to a rally for Laxalt and then-Sen. Dean Heller. By then, the would-be players in Nevada’s competitive marijuana industry understood that they had missed the dispensary license application deadline and were stuck “unless we change the rules,” according to the indictment, which alleges “they needed a particular Nevada state official, the position for which Candidate-1 (Laxalt) was running, to green-light to implement this.”

In two messages on Oct. 25, Kukushkin appears to make reference to Laxalt and Duncan when he somewhat cryptically informs his associates, “Together with lawyers, we have to write something beautiful and, together with the Attorney General, help the current Governor establish … They know we need to change the rules from the top but only after the elections. This is our only chance.”

And their money was on Laxalt.

In the ensuing days messages between the alleged co-conspirators mentioned Nevada, Las Vegas, money and the high prospects for the success of their plan. At one point, Parnas expressed his embarrassment that Laxalt’s campaign had yet to receive a promised $12,500 check.

Before the final fundraiser, Fruman in his messages spoke with consummate optimism about the Nevada project. “Everything is according to the program of preparation of penning up the licensing in the key states,” he wrote to Kukushkin, again alluding to the need for the $500,000 cash infusion.

“After the 6th, nobody will need anything here” followed by 16 exclamation points. The 6th referring to Nov. 6, Election Day.

A funny thing happened on the way to the fix. For all the foreign money they were willing to funnel, and all the photos they snapped of the politicians they believed were going to help them achieve their goal, Laxalt and Duncan lost their races.

Duncan wisely returned the donation as word of the straw donor scandal broke and recorded it on his campaign report.

This week, as reported in The New York Times, prosecutors said in a court filing that Laxalt at some point became “suspicious” about the provenance of the $10,000 his campaign received from Fruman. He didn’t return it to the sender, but cut a check to the U.S. Treasury “in order to avoid continued possession of the illegal donation without returning it to a potential wrongdoer.”

Inspector Clouseau would be pleased, but lagging so far behind Duncan in the hand-washing race makes Laxalt look either slow on the uptake or clueless about the stakes involved.

It’s also worth noting that the trial’s juror questionnaire, which seeks to vet areas that might reveal signs of partiality by the triers of fact, mentions the late casino magnate, newspaper publisher and Republican campaign mega-donor Sheldon Adelson. Don’t be surprised if the name of Laxalt’s political sugar daddy is uttered more than once in the coming days.

Adelson is beyond public scrutiny. He died in January. He’s not around to help everyone understand how the shady Russian and Ukrainian who aren’t residents of Nevada waltzed into a private fundraiser sealed off from the press.

It’s Laxalt whose campaign and political career are at stake.

And every text and reference by the defendants that refers to him is an ugly reminder of an infamous moment the US Senate candidate would surely like to put behind him.

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal— “Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. He is also the author of a new book, "Saints, Sinners, and Sovereign Citizens: The Endless War Over the West’s Public Lands." On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.

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