Anti-corruption activists in Ukraine welcomed the conviction of Paul Manafort on charges of tax evasion and bank fraud, saying they hope his trial will give fresh impetus to Ukrainian probes into politicians and oligarchs in Kyiv who paid millions of dollars to U.S. President Donald Trump's former campaign manager.
Ukrainian prosecutors should ask for the evidence used by U.S. prosecutors in the trial in the state of Virginia for their stalled probes into political corruption in Ukraine, they say.
Most of the 18 fraud charges Manafort faced — he was found guilty on eight of them — stemmed from his work as a political consultant for ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions. Manafort masterminded the political comeback in Kyiv of Yanukovych in 2010, six years after Ukraine's pro-democracy Orange Revolution blocked him from taking office after a disputed election.
“Manafort’s case is [an] important message for Ukrainian society to continue to fight for fair politics,” tweeted Serhiy Leshchenko, a lawmaker and former journalist, who helped expose secret cash payments channeled to Manafort from the Party of Regions between 2007 and 2012. According to U.S. prosecutors, Manafort received from his Ukrainian paymasters more than $60 million — money Leshchenko and anti-corruption campaigners say was stolen from public funds. The payments were recorded in handwriting in a so-called “black ledger” maintained by the Party of Regions.
Like other anti-corruption activists, though, Leshchenko’s satisfaction with Tuesday’s verdict is mixed with frustration — he laments that no high-ranking official from the Yanukovych era has yet been prosecuted in Ukraine for graft. Manafort’s conviction is a victory of sorts for Ukraine, they argue, but will be more complete when officials and oligarchs linked to Yanukovych face jail time.
“We still have no result of prosecution of high rank corrupted individuals,” Leshchenko tweeted.
Some hope is being drawn from an announcement made Tuesday by Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko, who told reporters in Kyiv that he is opening a criminal investigation into former Yanukovych officials and ministers incriminated in the Manafort trial. Lutsenko said that in February he sent an official request to U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller offering his readiness to provide any assistance needed in the prosecution of Manafort. He said his office had cooperated with the FBI before Mueller’s appointment and that important information had been exchanged.
Lutsenko told reporters that Manafort broke no tax evasion laws in Ukraine and is not under investigation but that former state officials who paid him may be guilty of various offenses. He cited the hundreds of documents presented by U.S. prosecutors in the Manafort trial, as well as the testimony of Manafort's former deputy, Rick Gates, as the reason for the opening of the new investigation.
“There has been testimony that Manafort received funds for his consulting services for disgraced ex-president Yanukovych and the Party of Regions from specific politicians of Ukraine,” Lutsenko said, according to local news reports.
The prosecutor general didn’t name the politicians, but in court testimony Manafort’s former business partner, Rick Gates, named politicians Serhiy Lyovochkin, Serhiy Tihipko, Andriy Klyuyev, Borys Kolesnikov and oligarch Rinat Akhmetov. He said they had funneled money into accounts in Cyprus, which was then laundered through offshore companies, and used the money to buy real estate and luxury cars and to support Manafort’s extravagant lifestyle.
But activists fear that for all the talk of new probes, words won’t translate into action and that political obstacles will be thrown up to block investigations, something they say has happened frequently with probes into high-level corruption.
Part of the problem lies with inter-agency rivalry.
After the ouster of Yanukovych in the 2013/2014 Maidan uprising, three anti-corruption agencies were established with the encouragement of Western powers — the National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption, which monitors the process of asset declaration by civil servants, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU), which investigates high-level corruption, and the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office (SAPO), which oversees NABU investigations and mounts state prosecutions in court. All three have been at each others’ throats and NABU officials say they have been purposely impeded, for political reasons, in their probes.
The NABU’s head, Artem Sytnyk, has claimed there have been illegal dismissals of criminal cases against officials, and has accused the SAPO of corruption. Lutsenko has also clashed with the NABU and last year sought to persuade Ukraine’s parliament to dismiss the heads of the anti-corruption agencies. Western powers, including U.S. officials, lobbied against the move.
Some analysts worry the Ukrainian government of President Petro Poroshenko is unlikely to want to prosecute Manafort’s political allies for fear of angering the Trump administration, whose support it needs to counter Russia.
Lutsenko insisted Tuesday no political obstacles will be thrown in the way of the Manafort-related probes, saying no one had tried to give him an order to stop. He said if it is confirmed that anyone paid money illegally to Manafort, "then he will be held liable in accordance with current Ukrainian legislation."