As President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial gets underway, a former Trump ally, Lev Parnas, has been throwing a wrench into the proceedings. Parnas was at the center of the Ukraine pressure campaign and has now turned text messages and other evidence in to House investigators, inflaming the debate about whether the Senate should call witnesses in the trial.
The case of Parnas, though, speaks not only to the influence campaign that led to Trump’s impeachment and that now comes before the Senate; Parnas’ ability to buy his way into Trumpworld in the first place demonstrates once again just how wrong the Supreme Court got it in the case of Citizens United v. FEC, decided 10 years ago this month.
The Ukrainian-born, Florida-based Parnas is an unlikely insider. He has a history of failed businesses and unpaid debts; he even named one recent venture “Fraud Guarantee” to suppress fraud allegations against him in online search results.
But Parnas and an associate, Igor Fruman, managed to buy insider status by laundering $325,000 to Trump’s super PAC—and then leveraged that status to advance the private personal and political interests that are now central to the Ukraine scandal.
Such access-buying would’ve been difficult 10 years ago. Before Citizens United, there was no such thing as a super PAC.
The Supreme Court in Citizens United paved the way for those corporate-backed big money political groups, but did so with the promise that they would be “independent” of the candidates they support. That independence, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, guarded against any risk of “corruption or the appearance of corruption.”
It hasn’t worked out that way. Thanks to porous rules and little enforcement by the Federal Election Commission, super PACs now regularly operate as shadow campaigns, offering the wealthiest Americans opportunities to buy political influence that are not available to the average citizen.
Just ask Lev. He had little connection to Trumpworld until promising a six-figure donation to Trump’s super PAC, America First Action. In exchange, he and Fruman were invited to an intimate dinner with Trump, where they, according to Parnas’ account, first urged the president to fire the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. (Trump has said he’s never spoken with Parnas.)
Dinner was followed by a meeting a week later with Rep. Pete Sessions, whom America First Action would support with millions in spending; the Texas congressman then demanded Yovanovitch’s ouster in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Texts show that super PAC officials later helped Parnas with the anti-Yovanovitch effort, too.
In the year that followed, Parnas and Fruman would deepen their relationship with Trumpworld—most notably, teaming up with the president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani—to advance a broadening Ukraine campaign.
“I went from being a top donor,” Parnas said, “to becoming a close friend of Rudy Giuliani’s, to eventually becoming his ally and his asset on the ground in Ukraine.”
The Trump allies saw Yovanovitch as an obstacle to Ukraine announcing a Biden investigation. But she was also an obstacle to Parnas’ and Fruman’s alleged plans to profit personally from a natural gas import scheme.
Trump eventually removed Yovanovitch from her post in April 2019, in the midst of the broadening Ukraine pressure campaign (and just after a Trump ally claimed to have put her under surveillance). Yet the groundwork for her removal was set—and the access first bought—through the America First Action donation the year before.
When Trump affords direct access to those big donors who give to his “approved” super PAC, that super PAC is anything but independent. And when six- or seven-figure donations can flow to the president’s super PAC, the $2,800 limit on candidate contributions is effectively meaningless: The money is going into two different pockets of the same coat, controlled by the same candidate and his agents.
In many ways, America First Action is not unique. Citizens United spawned hundreds of super PACs that effectively operate as shadow campaigns for candidates from both parties. Since 2010, spending by such outside groups has topped $4.5 billion, with much of that money coming from a tiny handful of ultrawealthy donors.
The secretive means by which Parnas and Fruman bought access is also a product of Citizens United. They laundered their $325,000 super PAC contribution through a shell corporation called “Global Energy Producers, LLC,” created just weeks earlier. This meant that their names never showed up on America First Action’s public campaign finance reports.
Before Citizens United, corporations were barred from making political contributions. But in the wake of that decision, wealthy donors now regularly route funds through LLCs and nonprofit corporations to secretly influence elections.
We at the Campaign Legal Center found evidence indicating that Parnas and Fruman gave in the name of Global Energy Producers to disguise the true source of the funds. Our complaint helped lead to their arrest in October 2019; the indictment further demonstrated that the funds used for the contribution did, in fact, come from a source other than Global Energy Producers, in apparent violation of federal law’s “straw donor” ban. Parnas and Fruman were also charged with lying to the FEC in response to CLC’s complaint.
Parnas and Fruman were clumsy, and how they gave was illegal (as our original complaint and the indictment demonstrate). But their ability to buy access while keeping their names off of public campaign finance records is an example of the secret money avenues opened by Citizens United. If they had been a little more careful, they might have gotten away with it.
More broadly, a system that trades six-figure political donations for access and influence means that only the wealthiest few can afford to make their voices heard.
By directing $325,000 to Trump’s super PAC, Parnas and Fruman bought the opportunity to tell Trump to his face that he should fire Yovanovitch, and it bought them access to Trump’s inner circle. The vast majority of Americans will never have hundreds of thousands of dollars to give to the president’s super PAC—and as a result, they’ll never have the opportunity to meet face to face with the president to discuss issues that matter to working families.
Despite Kennedy insisting in Citizens United that “the appearance of influence or access will not cause the electorate to lose faith in this democracy,” polls since then suggest something very different. A 2019 CLC poll showed that 69 percent of voters believe our campaign finance system is “rigged in favor of the wealthy, corporations and special interests”; other polls show similar majorities believe their “vote does not matter because of the influence that wealthy individuals and big corporations have on the electoral process.”
The Supreme Court got it wrong in Citizens United and likely won’t correct its error anytime soon. Congress, though, can still act to protect the voices of voters in our democracy.
It can start by fixing the FEC so that the agency will enforce and administer the laws that are still on the books. According to a recent survey of ours, 71 percent of voters want the agency to take a more active role in enforcing the law. Congress can also enact transparency legislation that protects voters’ right to know which wealthy special interests are spending big money to influence our government.
These solutions are included in H.R. 1, the For the People Act, which passed the House last year but has yet to receive a hearing in the Senate. Enacting such legislation would go some way toward undoing the damage of Citizens United, even if far too much damage has already been done.