Holed up under house arrest in Miami and facing federal campaign finance charges, Fruman has split with Parnas, retained counsel from Trump’s world and stayed true to his reputation as the quiet partner in the Soviet-born duo who stumbled into a presidential impeachment scandal. Unlike Parnas, whose approach is scorched earth, Fruman isn’t saying a word.
Behind Fruman’s silence are many of the answers to how the two business executives cracked elite GOP donor circles — and possessed the right connections in Ukraine to connect Giuliani with high-level officials who offered to aid Trump and damage the Democrats.
An examination of Fruman’s early years and business record, based on interviews with more than a dozen people who know him, shows what he brought to the table: an active network in Ukraine built over a long business career that started in the port city of Odessa and access to funds that helped the two men gain entree to Trump’s crowd.
Like Parnas, Fruman has pleaded not guilty to the charges in which federal prosecutors accuse the pair of funneling foreign money illegally into U.S. politics and violating other campaign finance laws.
For legal representation in that case and the impeachment proceedings, Fruman is relying on a team of criminal defense attorneys who once represented Trump or his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
One of them, Todd Blanche, declined to make his client available or comment on his behalf.
Fruman’s connections allowed Parnas, who grew up in the United States after emigrating from Odessa as a toddler, to function as “the middleman between two worlds” for Giuliani in Ukraine.
“Because of his businesses, he knew all kinds of people that were, you know, politicians . . . It was all his contacts,” Parnas told CNN last Thursday. “I didn’t have any contacts in Ukraine. I don’t have any contacts in Ukraine.”
For Fruman, his heady turn in Trump’s orbit was the latest reboot for the peripatetic businessman, who moved in the margins of Ukraine’s elite but saw his fortunes plummet amid the country’s political turmoil. He appeared to be working to revive his wealth by starting a liquefied natural gas trading business with Parnas, according to people familiar with his activities.
While seen as Parnas’s mysterious quiet partner in the United States, Fruman developed a reputation as a party-loving networker in Ukraine. Through connections from his business life in Odessa, his nightclub ownership in Kyiv and his attendance at a synagogue in the Ukrainian capital, Fruman helped get access to prominent Ukrainian prosecutors and tycoons with relative ease.
Roman Nasirov — the former head of Ukraine’s fiscal service, who knew Fruman from Kyiv and became a link to former Ukrainian prosecutor general Viktor Shokin, according to people familiar with the activities and text messages released by the House last week — said Fruman hoped U.S. political connections would bolster his fortunes.
“He was passing messages,” Nasirov said. “If the message comes from the ex-mayor of New York, people are impressed. They are even impressed by the person passing the message.”
How it was done in Odessa
Igor Mikhailovich Fruman was born in the then-Soviet Union in 1966. He lived for years in Odessa, a diverse port city on the Black Sea, which has been at the center of commerce, banditry and lore dating back to the days of the Russian empire. Writer Isaac Babel immortalized its criminal underground in the character of Jewish gangster Benya Krik in “How It Was Done in Odessa.”
It was here that Vladimir Karalnik, now an administrator at the Odessa philharmonic, said he went into business with Fruman in the waning days of the Soviet Union. Karalnik ran secondhand stores known as commission shops and said he met Fruman through their girlfriends. He said he hired the young 20-something, recognizing in him a brain for business.
“He reacted well to many things back then,” Karalnik said.
They built a business selling secondhand computers brought into Ukraine by foreign students to local schools that wanted to begin computer classes, Karalnik said.
Fruman sold them to schools and made good money on the markup, according to Karalnik, but after the Soviet Union fell, the criminal underworld that long operated in Odessa flourished.
“Big problems started for anyone who had money. They were simply killed,” Karalnik said, recalling how people took his business by threatening to murder him. “Igor decided to leave.”
Together with his parents, brother, wife and young son, Fruman gathered his earnings and moved to the United States in the early 1990s, settling outside Detroit.
Even after becoming an American citizen, Fruman kept his business interests rooted in the Black Sea city.
Working with an Odessa-based partner, Sergei Dyablo, he became one of the biggest distributors for Nestlé products in Ukraine and later broadened the import business to include other types of coffee, fruit and flowers, according to friends, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid involvement in the impeachment proceedings. The since-deleted website of Fruman’s firm F.D. Import & Export said the company also distributed ketchup, tomato sauce and cheese made at Ukrainian factories.
In 1999, he and his wife divorced. Michigan divorce records described him as a “successful businessman with income exceeding $120,000 per year.” The court awarded his ex-wife their family home, a modest three-bedroom house in a nice suburb of Detroit.
Life in the VIP zone
The lights were flashing and the music was blasting in the Kyiv outpost of the international club Buddha Bar in the summer of 2012. A drink in his hand and his shirt half unbuttoned, Fruman was marking the fourth anniversary of the nightclub he co-owned with a celebration dubbed the Flower Party.
As the revelers danced in the shadow of a giant gold Buddha, Fruman mingled upstairs in the VIP zone with an adviser to then-President Viktor Yanukovych, according to photos from the event published online. The previous year’s contestant in the Miss Universe pageant from Ukraine lounged on a chair nearby.
Now remarried to a well-heeled Ukrainian woman, Fruman had reinvented himself. Gone were the days of being known as the man hawking old computers or importing instant coffee.
Fruman crafted his image as president and chief executive of Otrada Luxury Group, which ultimately included a boutique hotel, apartment buildings and a beach club in Odessa, later renamed Mafia Rave, as well as designer jewelry boutiques across Ukraine and a stake in Buddha Bar. The club was a hot new place in the Ukrainian capital when it opened — where Fruman shared drinks with Ukraine’s business and political elite.
The prior year, in 2011, Ukraine’s Focus magazine put Fruman on a list of the richest Ukrainians at No. 177, citing his net worth as $39.6 million, contributing to his jet-setter image, though he co-owned a baby milk factory going through bankruptcy at the time.
At one point, Fruman came back to Odessa showing off a picture of himself with actor Steven Seagal and boasting about his connection to the American actor, Karalnik recalled, lamenting that living in America seemed to have changed his old friend.
“He already became someone else,” Karalnik said.
A key element of Fruman’s transformation appeared to be his 2005 marriage to Liza Naumova. Her father was the well-known director of the fruit and vegetable store on Odessa’s main boulevard during the Soviet Union, which gave her family access to sought-after goods, as well as myriad connections to the city’s power brokers.
The couple boasted a boutique hotel in Odessa with two golden sea horses spitting into a fountain out front — another place for Fruman to meet influential Ukrainians. Companies associated with him and his wife also got into property development in Odessa.
In Florida court filings in 2018, Naumova said she had stakes in at least six companies, one of which is building an apartment complex in central Odessa, and owned a Hummer, a Lamborghini and various boats.
Economic head winds
In late 2013, when thousands of Ukrainians crowded into Kyiv’s Independence Square to protest Yanukovych and corruption associated with him, Ukraine descended into political chaos.
The unrest all but crippled flashy venues like Buddha Bar, which is steps from where some 100 people died amid clashes between police and demonstrators. In early 2014, Yanukovych fled to neighboring Russia. Moscow responded to the pro-Western officials who took power in Kyiv by invading Crimea and fueling a proxy war in Ukraine’s east.
The events proved devastating for the nation’s already fragile economy. Ukraine’s currency plummeted from 8 to 23 hryvnia per dollar over two years. Moneyed Russian tourists who vacationed in Odessa vanished. Few Ukrainians were spending money on imported luxury jewels.
Fruman told friends that he experienced significant losses in the economic convulsion.
Naumova’s website described how the Otrada jewelry boutiques she oversaw, which expanded from just one in Odessa to six across Ukraine over 11 years, struggled to adapt to the new economic reality. She decided to focus on the market in Miami and open a boutique there.
Naumova filed for divorce in Florida court in late 2017, and Fruman quickly counter-filed. Fruman told friends this year that he was under financial pressure as a result.
As Fruman looked to reinvent himself again, he found a new business partner in Parnas. The former stockbroker had made it to Florida’s Boca Raton by way of New York’s Brighton Beach.
In an interview, Parnas said they had known one another for years through the emigre community but were not close. Then, in late 2016, he said Fruman noticed he had been posting photos of himself attending Trump events on Facebook and reached out to suggest a partnership.
Even before the election, Fruman was telling people in Ukraine he had “great connections to the Republican Party,” a Ukrainian friend in Kyiv said.
“He came and said that if we gave money to the Republicans, he had good connections and would set us up,” recalled the friend, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.
Parnas said he and Fruman explored business deals in late 2016 and attended Trump’s inauguration together in January 2017, but fell out for a time over a business dispute.
He said Fruman reached out again in late winter or early spring 2018 with a new idea: a liquefied natural gas company that would use Fruman’s ties in Ukraine and Parnas’s political connections in the United States to make them both wealthy.
Soon, Parnas and Fruman began giving hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to Republican candidates and political committees and vaulted their way into the upper echelon of Republican fundraising.
In 2018, Fruman took out a $3 million private loan against one of his Miami condos, records show, that prosecutors allege he used to help fund a $325,000 donation the pair gave through their new energy company.
As they became close to Giuliani — Parnas agreed to pay the former mayor a half-million dollars to do work for his business, Fraud Guarantee — they began flying on private jets and mingling in the elite world of people close to Trump.
At the same time, attempts to use Fruman’s connections for the gas business fell short.
Fruman reached out to a former guest at his Odessa hotel, Andrew Favorov, a top executive at the Ukrainian state energy giant Naftogaz, and met him in Texas with Parnas last year to pitch energy deals, according to people familiar with the interactions. The approach led to follow-up meetings in Washington with the head of Naftogaz, the people said, but the talks went nowhere.
Nasirov, the former head of Ukraine’s fiscal service who is now fighting abuse of office charges in Ukraine that he says are politically motivated, recalled Fruman boasting of connections in Trump’s world in 2016 and offering to set up meetings for Ukrainian officials.
Last week, Parnas’s attorney Joseph A. Bondy posted a video on Twitter that he said depicted his client introducing Nasirov to Trump at Mar-a-Lago in December 2016.
On the video, Parnas can be seen at the front of a crowd pressing in toward the president-elect. Parnas is chatting with Trump and gesturing toward a broad-shouldered man whose back is to the camera, as Trump shakes the man’s hand. Nasirov declined to comment on the meeting.
Beginning late last year, Parnas and Fruman began working with Giuliani and connecting him to disgruntled Ukrainian prosecutors who made claims about the then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and Joe Biden, whose son Hunter Biden served on the board of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma while his father was vice president.
Fruman’s network was critical. Shokin — the former prosecutor general who has made accusations against Biden central to Giuliani’s efforts — knew Nasirov, who said he knew Fruman from Buddha Bar.
In an attempt to secure a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Fruman also set up a meeting with Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky through a fellow congregant at the Brodsky Choral Synagogue in Kyiv, where Fruman worshiped, according to Kolomoisky.
When Giuliani’s team wanted to get to Ukrainian tycoon Dmytro Firtash, Fruman came through there, too. He went through another acquaintance: a Firtash executive and aspiring pro-Russian politician who was removed from Ukraine’s parliamentary ballot last year after being accused of escaping from a Moldovan prison and living under an assumed name. The executive’s lawyer denied the accusations, as The Washington Post previously reported.
As the House began its inquiry, Parnas and Fruman shared Trump-connected lawyers and a legal strategy. The two hired John M. Dowd, a former attorney to the president, as well as Kevin Downing, a lawyer for Manafort.
On behalf of both men, Dowd sent a letter to Congress, rebuffing a request from House investigators for documents and testimony to assist their probe. Dowd explained that through their work with Giuliani, the two men were essentially a part of Trump’s legal team and their communications were shielded by attorney-client and executive privilege.
A few days later, Parnas and Fruman were arrested at Dulles International Airport. As he sat in jail, Parnas said he began to fear that Dowd and Downing were working harder to get Fruman out than him. He said he was also concerned that Trump and Giuliani were not publicly defending the two men.
“I think they tried to keep me quiet,” Parnas told MSNBC.
In an email, Dowd called Parnas’s account “total nonsense.”
After a tense jailhouse confab with his counsel in October, Parnas fired his lawyers and hired a combative New York attorney who advertises himself on his website as a “criminal defense and cannabis business attorney.”
Fruman and Parnas were eventually released on bail and put under house arrest. Since then, they have been on different paths.
Sonne and Gryvnyak reported from Odessa and Kyiv. Tom Hamburger and Alice Crites in Washington and David L. Stern in Kyiv contributed to this report.