Is a Ukrainian Oligarch Helping Trump Smear Biden to Evade U.S. Corruption Charges?

Why did Ukrainian billionaire Dmytro Firtash, who is facing U.S. extradition on corruption charges, get involved in Trump’s effort to smear Joe Biden?

Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash looks on prior to a public hearing at the supreme court in Vienna on June 25, 2019. (Photo by HERBERT NEUBAUER / APA / AFP) / Austria OUT        (Photo credit should read HERBERT NEUBAUER/AFP/Getty Images)
Ukrainian billionaire Dmytro Firtash in Austria’s Supreme Court in Vienna on June 25. Photo: Herbert Neubauer/AFP/Getty Images

The conspiracy to reelect the president by misleading the American people about Joe Biden’s work in Ukraine continues, despite the impeachment inquiry triggered by revelations that Donald Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, tried to coerce Ukraine’s government into investigating the former vice president.

Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, openly admitted on Thursday that Trump withheld military aid to Ukraine to press Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to open investigations requested by the White House.

The latest phase of the disinformation campaign has focused on what Giuliani calls crucial new evidence: an affidavit from the Ukrainian prosecutor Biden got fired in 2016. But the sudden appearance of this sworn statement, six months after Giuliani and his allies began claiming that Biden had acted with corrupt intent to get that prosecutor removed, raises questions about who orchestrated the filing of that affidavit and how the effort to smear Biden might be related to a Ukrainian billionaire’s fight against extradition to the United States to face bribery charges.

In the sworn statement, which was submitted to a court in Austria last month, Viktor Shokin, the former prosecutor general of Ukraine, claims that he was forced out because he was leading “a wide-ranging corruption probe” of Burisma, a Ukrainian natural gas company that paid Biden’s son Hunter to sit on its board.

In fact, there is no evidence that such a probe ever existed. Shokin was forced to resign following complaints from international donors to Ukraine, and Ukrainian anti-corruption activists, that he had failed to pursue cases against corrupt former officials — including the owner of the gas company that employed Hunter Biden. By threatening to withhold U.S. aid unless Shokin was removed, Joe Biden had, in fact, made it more likely that his son’s employer would be prosecuted for corruption, not less likely.

Giuliani, however, is dedicated to spreading lies about Biden’s role in Ukraine on Trump’s behalf, so he has taken to waving Shokin’s affidavit in front television cameras with a theatrical flourish, as he did in an appearance on ABC in which he mistakenly stated that it had been online for six months. Shokin, in fact, delivered his sworn testimony in front of a notary in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, on September 4, according to a note on the document.

That timing matters because it means that Shokin made his statement accusing Biden of corrupt intent only after Giuliani and his allies in the conservative media echo chamber had spent the previous six months loudly making the same claim without producing a shred of credible evidence.

Although Shokin makes no mention of it in his affidavit, Giuliani had reached out to him to discuss Biden even earlier, interviewing him via Skype in late 2018. That call was set up by Lev Parnas, a Republican donor who was born in Ukraine and had paid the former New York mayor $500,000 for legal advice before acting as Giuliani’s fixer in Ukraine. Parnas and his business partner, Igor Fruman, were arrested last week and charged with making illegal campaign contributions, including $325,000 to a pro-Trump political action committee, using funds that had been provided by an unnamed Russian national.

In the text of the affidavit, Shokin even says that he first heard that Biden had boasted of getting him fired from a report on an American website in April of this year, when the conspiracy theory about Biden was first promoted by Giuliani and John Solomon, a far-right columnist who recently joined Fox News. “After my dismissal, Joe Biden made a public statement (1), saying — even bragging — that he had me fired,” Shokin said, according to a footnoted English translation of the Russian language statement that somehow made its way to Solomon three weeks after it was filed. “This is when it became clear that the real reason for my dismissal was my actions regarding … Burisma and Biden’s personal interest in that company,” Shokin continued.

A footnote in the affidavit cites as Shokin’s source an April 2, 2019 blog post from the American site, which in turn links back to a John Solomon column for The Hill, headlined, “Joe Biden’s 2020 Ukrainian Nightmare.” In that column, Solomon had incorrectly reported that Ukraine had reopened an investigation of the gas company that added Hunter Biden to its board in 2014.

The affidavit was featured last week in a Trump campaign ad attacking Biden and the House impeachment inquiry, as part of the president’s $3.4 million propaganda effort targeting voters in the early Democratic primary states with disinformation.

The onscreen text in the Trump ad notably leaves out the fact that Shokin presents no direct evidence to support his claim that Biden had him removed to block an investigation of Burisma. “I assume,” Shokin says in a part of the statement not highlighted in the ad, “Burisma, which was connected with gas extraction, had the support of the US Vice-President Joe Biden because his son was on the Board of Directors.”

A screenshot from a Trump campaign ad that shows part of an affidavit from Ukraine’s former chief prosecutor.

What is perhaps most interesting about the Shokin affidavit, though, is that it was made, as the former prosecutor says on the first page, “at the request of lawyers acting for Dmitry Firtash (‘DF’), for use in legal proceedings in Austria.”

Firtash, who also goes by the Ukrainian form of his first name, Dmytro, is a billionaire natural gas magnate, who made his fortune in the chaos of the post-Soviet era and was described by federal prosecutors in Illinois in court papers in 2017 as an “upper-echelon” associate of Russian organized crime. The oligarch has since denied such links, but a leaked State Department cable published by WikiLeaks described a 2008 conversation with the then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor, in which Firtash had “acknowledged ties to Russian organized crime figure Seymon Mogilevich, stating he needed Mogilevich’s approval to get into business in the first place.”

Firtash has been stranded in the Austrian capital, Vienna, since 2014, when federal prosecutors in Chicago unsealed an indictment charging him with violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, a federal law that makes it a crime for corporations and their subsidiaries to bribe foreign officials.

The Ukrainian billionaire was accused of “an alleged international racketeering conspiracy involving bribes of state and central government officials in India to allow the mining of titanium minerals” to supply Boeing, the Chicago-based aircraft manufacturer, in 2007. Firtash denies that he paid or recommended any bribes, and claims that his arrest, in the immediate aftermath of the popular uprising that toppled Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Yanukovych, was a politically motivated effort by the Obama administration to block him from influencing the direction of Ukrainian politics.

Firtash, a backer of Yanukovych, is also a former business partner of the deposed president’s American political consultant, Paul Manafort. In 2008, Firtash and Manafort planned an $850 million real estate project with the Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska to buy the Drake Hotel in Manhattan and convert it into a luxury property.

A court in Vienna, which reviewed 2014 State Department messages apparently dictating where and when Firtash should be arrested, accepted his claim that his arrest was politically motivated and initially blocked the extradition, setting off a five-year legal battle with the Justice Department.

In June, however, Austria’s Supreme Court ruled that Firtash could be extradited to stand trial in Chicago. That ruling was suspended the following month as the criminal court in Vienna is considering a request from the oligarch’s legal team to open a new proceeding based on newly submitted evidence, including Shokin’s affidavit and what the court spokesperson Christina Salzborn called “extremely extensive material.” In the affidavit, Shokin claims that the United States had directed Ukraine to prevent Firtash from returning home from Austria by threatening to arrest him, bolstering the oligarch’s claim that he was a victim of political persecution by the Obama administration.

While Giuliani and Firtash have both denied any direct collaboration, since July, the oligarch’s legal team has included two veteran Republican operatives, Victoria Toensing and her husband Joe diGenova, who also represent Trump. As Chris Wallace of Fox News reported recently, Toensing and diGenova have been “working with Giuliani to get oppo research on Biden.”

“According to a top U.S. official, all three were working off the books apart from the administration,” Wallace added. “The only person in government who knows what they were doing is President Trump.”

Toensing and diGenova did not respond to repeated requests to explain what role, if any, they played in getting Shokin to make his sworn statement or who provided an English translation of it to Solomon last month.

Firtash’s Austrian lawyer, Dieter Böhmdorfer — a former justice minister who was once the personal lawyer for the extreme-right Freedom Party leader Jörg Haider — also did not respond to questions about the provenance of the Shokin affidavit. Dan Webb, a former special prosecutor in the Iran-Contra investigation who now represents Firtash in Chicago, also did not respond to questions about who solicited Shokin’s testimony.

Two weeks ago, however, Toensing and diGenova used one of their regular appearances on Sean Hannity’s Fox News talk show to attack Biden and try to rehabilitate Shokin.

“We’ve known from the very beginning that Mr. Shokin was not a corrupt prosecutor,” diGenova said, in a clip that Trump shared on Twitter. “We’ve known that he was removed from office under pressure from Vice President Biden because he was investigating the vice president’s son, and because of the vice president’s connection to Burisma Holdings,” diGenova claimed. He went on to call the entire impeachment inquiry an “offensive” that had been launched merely “to protect Vice President Biden.”

A research file of documents provided to the State Department by Giuliani in March included the notes of his own interview with Shokin and an email from Solomon to Toensing, diGenova, and Parnas, suggesting that he was coordinating his research with them. The email included a preview copy of a column published later that day in The Hill, in which Solomon falsely accused anti-corruption activists in Ukraine of being a front group for George Soros and claimed that Marie Yovanovitch, then the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, was in on the plot.

Toensing, diGenova, and Giuliani have consistently endorsed the conspiracy theory that former Ukrainian officials accused of corruption, and Paul Manafort, have been framed by anti-corruption activists in Ukraine as part of a secret Soros-backed plot.

As Jane Mayer observed in the New Yorker, “No journalist played a bigger part in fueling the Biden corruption narrative than John Solomon.” On Wednesday, Democracy Forward, a Washington advocacy organization, submitted a Freedom of Information Act request asking the State Department for all communications between Trump administration officials and Solomon, who is now a Fox News contributor.

“The public deserves to know whether high-level Trump administration officials used John Solomon as a vehicle to spread misinformation that President Trump used to justify his request that a foreign government investigate a political rival,” Charisma Troiano, a Democracy Forward spokesperson, said in a statement. “The requested records could expose potentially illegal government propaganda.”

Another reported connection between Giuliani’s efforts to bolster the anti-Biden conspiracy theory and the legal team working for Firtash is Parnas. He and Fruman were frequently spotted with Giuliani in Trump’s Washington hotel. Video posted on Facebook last month by a rabbi in Kyiv who has started a refugee camp modeled on the shtetl from “Fiddler on the Roof” showed them in the hotel lobby.

On September 20, a Reuters reporter photographed them having lunch in the hotel with a woman who looked like Toensing.

After Parnas and Fruman were arrested last week at Dulles Airport in Washington with one-way tickets to Vienna, diGenova and Toensing told the Wall Street Journal that they had hired Parnas in July to work as an interpreter related to their representation of Firtash.

Giuliani, who told The Atlantic that he, too, was planning to fly to Vienna last week, said that Parnas and Fruman had traveled to the Austrian capital three to six times in recent months.

Before their arrest, Trump’s former lawyer John Dowd, who represents Parnas and Fruman, told congressional investigators that the two men might not provide documents requested by the impeachment inquiry because they had assisted Giuliani “in connection with his representation of President Trump.”

“Both men had worked in an unspecified capacity for Firtash before Parnas joined the Ukrainian’s legal team, according to a person familiar with the Florida men’s business dealings with Firtash,” Reuters reported on Saturday. The same unidentified source told the news agency that Firtash had been “financing” the activities of Parnas and Fruman. Their expenses had included private jet flights in the United States and travel to Vienna, according to the Reuters source.

What exactly, Parnas, a Ukrainian-born U.S. citizen, and Fruman, a Belarusian-born U.S. citizen, were doing for Firtash is not yet clear, but if he was paying their expenses while they helped Giuliani look for ways to smear Biden, the oligarch was, at least indirectly, helping Trump.

CNN reported on Thursday that federal prosecutors in New York said that the government intends to produce “fairly voluminous” discovery material in the case against Parnas, Fruman, and two associates, including email and other communications from more than 10 accounts and financial records from more than 50 banks.

According to federal prosecutors, when Parnas pressed a Republican congressman to ask the State Department to remove or recall Marie Yovanovitch, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, he was acting, “at least in part, at the request of one or more Ukrainian government officials.” In her testimony to the impeachment inquiry last week, Yovanovitch said that she had come under attack for supporting the anti-corruption drive in Ukraine, which made her an enemy of former officials and oligarchs who benefited from the old system. Under her leadership, she said, the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv’s efforts “were intended, and evidently succeeded, in thwarting corrupt interests in Ukraine, who fought back by selling baseless conspiracy theories to anyone who would listen.”

“Sadly,” Yovanovitch added, “someone was listening, and our nation is the worse off for that.”

Until July, Firtash was represented by Lanny Davis, Bill Clinton’s former lawyer who now represents Michael Cohen, the former Trump fixer who turned on the president and confessed to tax evasion, campaign finance violations, and lying to Congress. By replacing Davis with Toensing and diGenova, and getting an affidavit from Shokin in which he repeats the allegations about Biden, Firtash might have adopted a new legal strategy aimed at supplying the American president with material for his campaign and hoping that a reelected Trump might be grateful enough to get his attorney general, William Barr, to drop the corruption charges.

Toensing also has a personal connection to Barr. In June, her son Brady, who worked at the family firm in Washington, was hired by Barr as a senior counsel in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy.

Firtash’s legal team told Simon Shuster of Time magazine in June, when his extradition appeared likely, that they were prepared to produce evidence that would embarrass Obama administration officials. “This will be very tough against the previous administration,” one of Firtash’s lawyers said then. “With the current administration, I think they will like it.”

Such a strategy — of attacking Obama and helping Trump to smear Biden — might have a chance to succeed. Last week, it emerged that Trump, in 2017, was willing to consider Giuliani’s request to drop charges against a Turkish-Iranian gold trader, Reza Zarrab, who was accused by federal prosecutors of helping Iran evade sanctions, if Turkey agreed to free a Christian pastor to please his evangelical base.

Then there is also the fact that Trump, before he entered politics, made public comments deriding the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the law Firtash is accused of violating. On May 15, 2012, Trump took part in a televised discussion of a just-published New York Times report that Walmart de Mexico “had paid bribes to obtain permits in virtually every corner of the country,” possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The investigation would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize the following year, but Trump, who was asked about it during his weekly phone-in to the CNBC business talk show “Squawk Box,” was not impressed.

“Every other country goes into these places and they do what they have to do,” Trump said, referring to bribes paid to local officials. “It’s a horrible law, and it should be changed. I mean, we’re like the policemen for the world, it’s ridiculous.”

“Every other country in the world is doing it, we’re not allowed to,” he complained. “The world is laughing at us — we’re a bunch of dopes.”

Update: Friday, Oct. 18, 5:19 p.m. EST
On Friday afternoon, Stephanie Baker and Irina Reznik of Bloomberg News reported that sources close to the Ukrainian oligarch said that Shokin’s sworn statement was procured by people “working on Firtash’s behalf,” as part of what they described as “an effort to get Rudy Giuliani’s help” in getting the Justice Department to drop the corruption charges.

As Baker and Reznik note, in one Fox News appearance Giuliani referred to Shokin’s statement as, “the affidavit I put out,” suggesting that he might have played a role in obtaining it from Firtash’s legal team and providing it to the former Hill columnist John Solomon, who posted it online on September 26.

According to the unnamed sources who spoke to Bloomberg, Shokin was promised that his statement would not be made public, but Giuliani, by displaying it in multiple television appearances, focused a spotlight on what was intended to be a covert effort to aid Trump. As a result of that publicity, Firtash’s associates suggested, the possibility that Giuliani or Trump might be able to press the Justice Department to quietly drop the case against him seemed to vanish, since such a move would now look like a clear quid pro quo.

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