Mueller Finds Plenty Of Crimes In Ukraine, In Contrast To Nation’s Hapless Law Enforcers
Unlike Ukrainian law enforcement, U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller is finding plenty of crimes connected to Ukraine. He's also charging suspects, negotiating plea agreements and taking the evidence to move up the chain of alleged wrongdoing.
The last week has shown big movement in the case against Paul Manafort, the former campaign manager to U. S. President Donald J. Trump and a longtime adviser to ex-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, ousted by the EuroMaidan Revolution in 2014.
Among the revelations from Mueller's team are allegations that Manafort engaged in a covert lobbying push on Yanukovych's behalf by paying off European politicians to act as "independent analysts." The lobbying push appears to have coalesced around a Vienna company belonging to the son of Mykola Azarov, the former Ukrainian prime minister and chairman of the former ruling Party of Regions.
Records and conversations with former officials show that much of this push had to do with an attempt to convince European Union officials to stop pressuring the Ukrainian government to release political prisoners, including Batkivshchyna Party leader and ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Mueller’s investigation has yielded six guilty pleas so far under his mandate to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Manafort denies the allegations against him, and has entered not guilty pleas to all charges filed. more Manafort on page 10
Many of the new charges focus on allegations from 2011 to 2013. After his election, Yanukovych moved quickly to arrest and imprison Tymoshenko, who came within 3.5 percentage points of being elected president in 2010. She was quickly prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to prison in 2011 for alleged abuse of power and embezzlement involving a 2009 natural gas agreement with Russia.
The 2011 conviction was widely viewed as political retribution for opposing Yanukovych. Tymoshenko served more than two years of a seven-year prison sentence, released only after Yanukovych fled Ukraine on Feb. 22, 2014.
But her imprisonment during the Yanukovych years proved to be a sore point in EU-Ukraine relations.
Mueller’s indictment alleges that Manafort organized a covert lobbying operation, creating “a nongovernmental agency” that would “assemble a small group of high-level European… champions and politically credible friends who can act informally and without any visible relationship with the Government of Ukraine.”
One ex-Yanukovych official who worked with Manafort told the Kyiv Post that the objective was to convince European diplomats to drop demands to release Tymoshenko and other political prisoners in exchange for signing the association agreement. “The West could have sacrificed Yulia to get Ukraine in its orbit,” said the official, who would only speak on condition of anonymity.
Pat Cox, an Irish politician, was appointed to an EU mission on political prisoners in Ukraine in 2012 with Aleksandr Kwasniewski, the former president of Poland. Cox recalled in a letter provided to the Kyiv Post that a report compiled by law firm Skadden Arps Slate Meagher and Flom appeared to be part of the lobbying push.
In the letter, Cox wrote that Yanukovych presented a letter to him from “Skadden et al, the U.S. legal company that prepared opinions for the Yanukovych regime… in defense of his posture.”
The indictment alleges that Manafort's recruits included an unnamed ex-chancellor as part of a group that received more than 2 million euros. A U.S. regulatory filing by the European Center for a Modern Ukraine, a Brussels-based nongovernmental organization that lobbied for Party of Regions interests in the West, states that “speakers at these events included… Aleksander Kwasniewski, the former president of Poland, Alfred Gusenbauer, the former chancellor of Austria, and Romano Prodi, Italy's former prime minister."
The filing states the lobbying effort’s purpose as “Ukraine's entry into the EU, the signing and ratification of the association agreement between Ukraine and the EU, and the ratification of the deep and comprehensive free trade agreement.”
In 2012, when these events were alleged to have taken place, Gusenbauer chaired a Vienna-based company called the Sustainable Ukraine Foundation. The group’s website is down, but archived screenshots show him listed as the group’s chair, with quotes from Kwasniewski and Prodi lauding Ukraine on the site.
A September 2012 event at Vienna’s Renner Institute, first reported by the Austrian press, featured Gusenbauer along with Prodi and then-Foreign Minister of Ukraine Kostyantyn Gryschenko.
“I think the present situation where many in the EU see the Ukraine solely through the lens of the Tymoshenko case is not correct and is not serving EU interests,” Gusenbauer said at the event.
In a press release one day after the event, Prodi was quoted as saying, "We have to work to do everything we can to make Ukraine a bridge between Russia and the EU. Relations between the EU and Ukraine will eventually get closer and issues such as the Tymoshenko case will be handled with less emotion and passion.”
Sustainable Ukraine caused a scandal in 2012 after Ukrainian journalists revealed that it was owned by Olexiy Azarov, the son of former Prime Minister Mykola Azarov.
The group had plastered billboards around Ukraine showing the elder Azarov next to EU politicians, including Kwasniewski and Margaret Thatcher photoshopped into the picture, along with the slogan “reforms are inevitable.”
Prodi and Gusenbauer deny the accusations. Kwasniewski denied that he had worked with Sustainable Ukraine and said, “I never acted within any lobby group!”
“I read a lot information about Mr. Manafort and I have the impression that these are more interpretations of the advocates or prosecutors than real facts,” Kwasniewski added.
Sustainable Ukraine’s ownership records further tie it to Gusenbauer. The firm is partly owned by Specht Asset Management Services, which belongs to Vienna lawyer Leopold Specht, who confirmed that he held a stake in Sustainable Ukraine.
"The company has been founded to support activities, within the Ukraine, to foster grassroots ini- tiatives in areas like alternative energy, alternative agriculture, environmental protection, cultural initiatives, from a progressive European position," Specht said in a statement. "And, it should support initiatives strengthening the rapport between Ukraine and the European Union.
Gusenabuer’s office is located in Specht’s law firm, according property records and Specht himself.
A college try
Sustainable Ukraine also involved itself in other projects. The Azarovcontrolled group gave an unspecified amount of money to Harvard University in the summer of 2013 as part of a bid for the university to set up a Ukrainian studies center in Kyiv.
Sustainable Ukraine’s Kyiv representative, Natasha Sheiko, briefly worked pro bono on Harvard’s behalf to help “collect funds from potential Ukrainian donors,” a university spokeswoman said. Harvard declined to disclose the amount of money in the gift.
Mikhail Minakov, a Kyiv professor, shepherded the project, and told the Kyiv Post in 2013 that $4 million would be needed for the effort.
Neither Minakov nor Sheiko replied to repeated requests for comment.
Gates’ guilty plea last week has sparked speculation that he may have juicy information to dish on his former business partner Manafort.
Bohdan Vitvitsky, a former federal prosecutor, told the Kyiv Post that “If a defendant in a multi-defendant case offers to plead guilty, which he does for his own reasons, the prosecutor will decide how helpful that plea would be for the remaining case and perhaps how much help that potential pleading defendant can provide against how many other targets etc. and on that basis will negotiate with pleading defense counsel a very enticing, moderately enticing or only modestly enticing plea agreement.”
"Gates now has an opportunity to be on the side of the 'good guys,' he added. "It strikes me as between an enticing and moderately enticing deal."
Ex-Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer speaks at a European Council summit in October 2008 in Brussels. Gusenbauer chaired a Viennabased nongovernmental organization called the Sustainable Ukraine Foundation, run by ex-Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola...