In the long battle to recover the more than $40 billion stolen by the regime of runaway former President Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine has notched a small victory.
The country received $567,000 in June as part of its investigation into former Justice Minister Oleksandr Lavrynovych, who allegedly rigged a state tender and embezzled $1.1 million to hire and pay U.S. law firm Skadden, Arps, Meagher, & Flom LLP and Associates.
The law firm appears to have refunded $567,000 to the Ukrainian government in June under pressure from Ukrainian and U.S. prosecutors, according to interviews with Ukrainian law enforcement officials.
The money transfer was first reported by the New York Times in September. A spokesman for the U.S. special counsel investigating Russian meddling into the 2016 U.S. presidential election, which includes the Skadden case, declined to comment.
Skadden did not reply to repeated requests for comment.
On wiring the $567,000 to Ukraine, Skadden has claimed that the money had been held in “escrow for future work” that had never been done.
But the transfer only came after the Ukrainian government sent the U.S. Justice Department a letter requesting the repayment, and after Ukrainian prosecutors under Serhiy Gorbatyuk, head of the Special Investigations Department at Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office, filed several Mutual Legal Assistance Requests through the PGO’s international legal assistance department.
Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko himself thanked the U.S. Justice Department for its “close cooperation” in returning more than $500,000 from an “American firm” in a June Facebook post.
“These are funds that were squandered by the former leadership of the Ministry of Justice under Yanukovych and removed from Ukraine by signing a fictitious agreement about services,” Lutsenko wrote, before referencing the criminal statute under which Lavrynovych is being prosecuted.
The investigation into whether the Yanukovych-era Ministry of Justice subverted procurement procedures to hire Skadden and then embezzled money to pay the firm was opened before Yanukovych fled the country, but heated up after the 2014 EuroMaidan Revolution.
Skadden was hired to produce a report justifying to the U.S. government the jailing of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko by Yanukovych for her signing in 2009 of a controversial gas supply deal with Russia. The case against Tymoshenko was widely seen, both in Ukraine and internationally, as being politically motivated.
Gorbatyuk’s office sent its first Mutual Legal Assistance Request to the United States in December 2014, and followed it up with two additional requests and four “reminders.”
Ukrainian representatives from the PGO’s international legal assistance office visited Washington in December 2016.
March 2017 saw the probe speed up, as CNN published an article saying that Ukrainian prosecutors wanted to question Paul Manafort, a former advisor of President Yanukovych. In the same month, then-FBI Director James Comey was asked about the Ukrainian requests during a congressional hearing.
Gorbatyuk’s office got a response in April, with correspondence and documents showing “how the events took place, before the agreement was signed, as it was being fulfilled, and after its fulfillment,” the prosecutor said.
“Our requests for depositions were not fulfilled,” Gorbatyuk added.
Prosecutors on the case want to question members of the Skadden team who came to Ukraine to work on the report, including former Obama Administration officials Gregory Craig and Clifford Sloan, as well as the London-based associate Alex Van der Zwaan, the Russian-speaking son-in-law of Russian oligarch German Khan, who prosecutors say acted as an intermediary for the team on much of the trip.
Court orders show that Gorbatyuk’s team has received access to phone records from the team’s time in Kyiv, showing their communications with Yanukovych government and Party of Regions officials.
“Law firms and lawyers are often professional enablers,” said Daria Kaleniuk, head of the Anti-Corruption Action Center. “Lawyers are able to enable money laundering because they are protected by attorney-client privilege, meaning that they can say they are just representing their client’s interests, and not helping them commit any wrongdoing.”
“But in fact lawyers have to also verify their clients and have to see who is behind the legal entities to whom they are providing services,” she added.
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