Ukraine says it intercepted $6 million bribe to stop probe of Burisma founder

By DAVID L. STERN AND ROBYN DIXON | The Washington Post | Published: June 14, 2020

KYIV, Ukraine — Prosecutors say the heap of $6 million in crisp, new bills, fastened in bundles with pink and yellow rubber bands, was supposed to bribe a Ukrainian anti-corruption investigator to drop an embezzlement case against the founder of the natural gas company Burisma.

To Ukrainians, the pile was eye-popping — and not just because it was so large. In this country, plagued for decades by corruption, such payments normally change hands quietly, without anyone finding out.

But here it was, seized by law enforcement officials and proudly displayed in transparent, plastic bags by the director of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine and the special anti-corruption prosecutor. Details of the case emerged Sunday in a Kyiv court.

Authorities said an anti-corruption bureau official was paid $6 million to drop the investigation against Burisma founder Mykola Zlochevsky, a former ecology and natural resources minister, in an elaborate sting operation Friday. Local media reported it took 12 hours to count the cash.

Special anti-corruption prosecutor Nazar Kholodnytsky ruled out involvement by Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden or his son, Hunter. Anti-corruption bureau director Artem Sytnyk implicated Zlochevsky, another former Burisma employee and two former tax officials.

Zlochevsky is accused of embezzling loan funds from the National Bank of Ukraine issued to Real Bank in 2013. Hunter Biden joined the Burisma board in 2014 and left in 2018.

The company was at the heart of the impeachment proceedings this year against President Donald Trump. Trump pressured Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky last year to launch an investigation into the Bidens based on Hunter’s involvement with the company.

Burisma remains at the center of efforts led by Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani to dig up dirt in Ukraine on Joe Biden to help Trump’s re-election campaign. Giuliani has pushed claims that as vice president, Biden pressured then-Ukraine president Petro Poroshenko to sack Ukrainian prosecutor general Viktor Shokin in return for $1 billion in U.S. loan guarantees. Trump’s allies claim Biden wanted to prevent investigations that might implicate his son in wrongdoing.

At the time, however, Biden was open about pressing for Shokin’s removal as part of a campaign by the U.S., the European Union and international financial institutions, who viewed the prosecutor as ineffective in the fight against corruption.

Former Ukraine prosecutor general Ruslan Ryaboshapka audited the many outstanding case files looking into Burisma and said he found no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens.

Burisma denied involvement in the new bribery allegations.

“The Burisma Group company and its management have nothing to do with the report of the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office and some media outlets about participating in illegal actions,” the company said in a statement Saturday. “The company is operating exclusively within the framework of the current legislation, and it is one of the largest taxpayers and defends the interests of energy independence of Ukraine.”

Details of the suspected bribe emerged Sunday during the arraignments of Mykola Ilyashenko, first deputy head of Kyiv’s tax office, and Andrii Kicha, a former legal adviser to Burisma and a former member of Ukraine’s taxation service. Another former tax official, Olena Mazurenko, was charged as an accomplice.

Prosecutors alleged that Ilyashenko handed three travel bags laden with $5 million in $100 bills to anti-corruption bureau agent Yevgeny Shevchenko in a parking lot under the Kyiv tax headquarters. Another $1 million was paid as a “commission to an intermediary.”

Authorities said the $6 million was a record amount for a bribe seized in Ukraine. The cash is now to be transferred to the Ukraine state treasury.

Ending the probe was to be a birthday gift for Zlochevsky, who turned 54 on Sunday, officials said. It would have allowed him to return to Ukraine without risking arrest.

Sytnyk said Zlochevksy also was under suspicion.

Prosecutors said the parties agreed to the suspected bribe at a meeting Wednesday. They said Shevchenko met with Ilyashenko, Kicha and Mazurenko on Friday for the handover.

Ilyashenko carried three large travel bags stuffed with cash, prosecutors alleged.

Kholodnytsky ruled out involvement by the Bidens.

“Let’s put an end to this once and for all,” he said. “Biden Jr. and Biden Sr. do not appear in this particular proceeding,” he said. Sytnyk said the case had no political subtext.

Some anti-corruption activists saw the arrests as a hopeful sign that Ukraine’s culture of corruption is finally changing.

“I think it’s a big deal, but obviously it’s only the tip of the iceberg,” said Daria Kaleniuk, director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center. “It’s the biggest bribe caught in an attempt to bribe a senior official.

“The usual case in Ukraine, prosecutors are like at a supermarket. There is a price to close cases and there is a price to open them again. This was a landmark.”

Dixon reported from Moscow. Natalie Gryvnyak in Kyiv contributed to this report.