Giuliani’s Claims Spread to Another Ukraine Corruption Case

A Ukrainian oligarch has seized upon the Trump administration’s attacks on Biden to fight extradition.

By Amy Mackinnon, a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani speaks in Washington.
Rudy Giuliani speaks at the Conference on Iran in Washington on May 5, 2018. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

A notorious Ukrainian oligarch fighting extradition to the United States on bribery and racketeering charges is seeking to link his defense to allegations made by U.S. President Donald Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani that former Vice President Joe Biden tried to pressure Ukrainian politicians.

The effort by Dmytro Firtash, a Ukrainian gas mogul described in Department of Justice court filings as an “upper-echelon [associate] of Russian organized crime,” underlines the wide-ranging consequences of Giuliani’s effort to use Ukraine as a wedge issue in U.S. politics. 

In July, Firtash made a revealing change to his Washington legal team, hiring Joe diGenova and Victoria Toensing, a husband-and-wife duo closely associated with the Trump administration. The pair reportedly worked with Giuliani as he sought to mine damaging information on the president’s rivals in Ukraine and have been involved in Republican Party campaigns dating back to the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998.

The hiring of diGenova and Toensing was a 180-degree pivot from Firtash’s previous Washington representation, former Clinton lawyer Lanny Davis. Ironically, Giuliani, in an interview earlier this year with the Hill.TV, criticized Davis for working for Firtash because of the latter’s alleged ties to Russian organized crime, which he has denied. 

Toensing and diGenova are both frequent guests on Fox News, where they have pushed Ukraine conspiracy theories. Last year they were tipped to join Trump’s legal team in special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry alongside Giuliani, but they turned down the offer due to a conflict of interest with other clients they were representing in the investigation. 

Firtash has fought a long extradition battle from Vienna, where he was first detained on a U.S. arrest warrant in 2014. His appeals appeared to reach the end of the road in June when the Austrian Supreme Court upheld a decision allowing for his extradition, but that has since been stalled after his defense team provided what the court called “extremely extensive material” in a bid to have the case reopened.

Toensing did not reply to a request for comment about the new material offered to the Austrian court. But a sworn statement by former Ukrainian Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin for use in the case suggests that Firtash’s defense has, at least in part, relied on claims similar to those made by Giuliani. Shokin is the Ukrainian prosecutor at the heart of the whistleblower complaint that prompted congressional Democrats to open an impeachment inquiry into Trump.

The affidavit was published online last week by John Solomon, a contributing opinion writer at the Washington news site the Hill who previously ran Hill.TV, and whose columns earlier this year were instrumental in magnifying unproven claims about Biden and the then-U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

In the statement notarized on Sept. 4 of this year, Shokin says that as vice president, Biden—who is now running to unseat Trump as president—pressured Ukrainian politicians to prevent Firtash from returning to Kyiv in 2015 after a lower Austrian court rejected his extradition request.

It is not clear whether there is any basis for the claim, but a former senior administration official told Foreign Policy that the United States did not want to see Firtash return to Ukraine, which doesn’t have an extradition treaty with the United States, but that the policy was not related to Biden or his family.

It wasn’t just Washington that didn’t want to see Firtash return to Ukraine; the Ukrainians didn’t either. In late 2015, with Kyiv awash with rumors that he might return, Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov dispatched a group of far-right fighters to the Kyiv airport to detain him if he arrived, while Ukrainian airspace was closed to all charter flights. 

Had Firtash returned to Ukraine to stand trial while wanted by the United States, it would have created a political headache for then-President Petro Poroshenko, at a time when Kyiv was highly dependent on U.S. support in the war against Russia and its proxies in the Donbass. 

Shokin has been a central character in the whistleblower scandal, with Trump and his allies claiming that Biden had sought to pressure the Ukrainian government to remove the official in a bid to shield his son Hunter Biden, who was on the board of a gas company that had previously fallen under the scrutiny of Ukrainian prosecutors. Shokin repeats these claims in the 12-page affidavit from the Firtash case. There has been no evidence of wrongdoing in this case by either Biden or the Obama administration, and international institutions and other European nations had sought to see Shokin go, as he was widely regarded as an obstacle to anti-corruption investigations.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst said that Shokin, in giving a statement to Firtash’s defense team, undercuts any case the former prosecutor general might have to portray his comments about Biden as motivated by a desire for transparency. “Firtash is arguably the most odious, or one of the most odious oligarchs in Ukraine,” Herbst said. 

During a hastily requested briefing with lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, the State Department inspector general handed over a packet of documents, one of which provided a glimpse at the back channel among Solomon at the Hill, Giuliani, and Toensing—although the timing of the email predates her work with Firtash. 

Among the documents, some of which originated with Giuliani, who told CNN he sought to send an outline of his allegations about Biden and the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, was an email from Solomon to Toensing, diGenova, and Lev Parnas, a Soviet-born businessman who has assisted Giuliani with his opposition research. 

According to the Daily Beast, the email was titled “Outline of Soros reporting, including embedded documents” and includes a draft of an article based on Solomon’s interview with former Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko, hours before it was published on the website, raising further questions about the degree of coordination between the journalist and the Trump allies.

In a tweet on Wednesday night, Solomon said the email was part of his fact-checking process. 

Firtash, who backed the pro-Russian party of the former president, made his fortune as the middleman in Russian gas sales to Ukraine, buying cut-price gas from Russia and selling it on to Ukraine at a significant markup. 

Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in 2010 detail a 2008 conversation between Firtash and then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor in which the oligarch is alleged to have said he needed to secure the approval of the Russian mob “boss of bosses” Semion Mogilevich to get into the gas business in the first place.

Firtash has strongly denied that the conversation took place or that he had any ties to Mogilevich. 

Firtash’s lawyers have long argued that the case against him was politically motivated, a bid by the United States to remove his influence from Ukraine in the wake of the 2014 pro-European Orange Revolution. Although the indictment against him was filed under seal in June 2013, long before protests in Ukraine began, emails seen by the Guardian suggest that the timing of his arrest did align with political developments in Ukraine.

Correction, Oct. 4, 2019: A previous version of this article misattributed a quote from former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst. It has been updated to correct the error.

Correction, Oct. 9, 2019: A previous version of this article misidentified the diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in 2008. It has been updated to correct the error.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack