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Ukraine’s anti-corruption bureau under fire over its handling of leak scandal

by Oleg Sukhov June 20, 2024 1:18 AM 10 min read
The offices of NABU, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine on Oct. 1, 2019. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
by Oleg Sukhov June 20, 2024 1:18 AM 10 min read
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The National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) has come under fire as more details emerged over the past weeks about leaks from the bureau and its handling of the scandal.

For nearly a month, the country’s key anti-corruption agency has been in turbulence. In late May, it was revealed that top employees of the agency were leaking information to suspects in a high-profile corruption investigation, and warning them about upcoming searches.

A month later, the investigation of the leak is ongoing, and the bureau hasn’t given any public explanation, or fired anyone.

The independence of the agency is at stake. The corruption case concerns people affiliated with the President’s Office, raising the question of whether the leak was a singular event, or a demonstration of the office’s sway over the NABU, which is supposed to remain free from political influence.

More details have emerged since the scandal broke off, showing the extent of the leak.

Gizo Uglava, First Deputy Director of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine in an undated photo. (Wikimedia)

The alleged leaks were discovered after investigators seized a phone belonging to businessman Yury Holyk, who was under investigation in a high-profile corruption case. The phone contained copies of messages obtained by Holyk from an intermediary who allegedly talked with NABU employees from 2021 through 2023.

The leaked correspondence, which has been published by investigative journalists, involves several people linked to the President’s Office. The office did not respond to requests for comment.

At the center of the accusations is the NABU's first deputy head, Gizo Uglava, who has been the agency’s second-in-command for more than nine years. Uglava is being investigated in the leak case and has been suspended at his own request.

NABU Chief Semen Kryvonos has also been lambasted by anti-corruption activists due to what they see as his failure to react to the leak scandal quickly and adequately and to fire Uglava. Kryvonos said he wouldn’t make any such decisions before the investigation is completed.

"The main thing is results," Vitaly Shabunin, head of the Anti-Corruption Action Center’s executive board, said on Facebook on June 11. "Namely, the absence of further leaks from the NABU to suspects and punishment for those responsible. And at this stage it’s already impossible to achieve that without firing Gizo Uglava."

Kryvonos denied the accusations of wrongdoing. The NABU and Uglava did not respond to requests for comment, and Uglava made no public comments on the matter.

Corruption case undermined

In May, the Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office (SAPO) opened a case into abuse of power and an alleged leak of investigative information by the NABU.

Law enforcement sources told the Kyiv Independent that Uglava and Valery Polyuha, a NABU detective, were under investigation in the leak case.

The information was leaked in the case into an alleged corruption scheme as part of the government's "Big Construction" project, which has run since 2020, according to law enforcement sources and leaked correspondence published by the Bihus.Info investigative journalism outlet.

The NABU allegedly leaked information in the interests of Holyk, a businessman who is under investigation in the “Big Construction” case.

Holyk has overseen an alleged corruption scheme in the government's major construction projects, and his firm has obtained huge revenue from them, according to an investigation by Bihus.Info published in October.

Holyk does not have an official role at the President’s Office but, according to investigative journalists, he is acting in the interests of the office. As of August 2023, when investigative journalists of Bihus.Info followed him, Holyk visited the President's Office daily, prompting journalists to allege he unofficially works there. He denied it.

Apart from Holyk, Zelensky's former Deputy Chief of Staff Kyrylo Tymoshenko and ex-Dnipropetrovsk Oblast Governor Valentyn Reznichenko have also been investigated in the "Big Construction" corruption case, according to law enforcement sources.

Reznichenko and Holyk, who used to be an aide to Reznichenko, have been investigated over awarding construction contracts at inflated prices to a company linked to them.

As a result of the leaks, most of the evidence in the "Big Construction" corruption case has been lost, and searches gave no results, a law enforcement source told the Kyiv Independent. Due to this, there is virtually no evidence against Holyk now, and there are no grounds to charge him, according to the source.

Holyk has left Ukraine, using a permit from the authorities to bypass the ban on leaving the country for men between the age of 18 and 60, the Ukrainian news site Dzerkalo Tyzhnia reported on June 13, citing sources at the State Border Guard.

Holyk confirmed on June 13 that he had left Ukraine using a system set up for volunteers helping the military but added that he would return on June 17, the Ukrainian media outlet Suspilne reported. It is not clear if he has returned.

Yury Holyk, a businessman who is under investigation in the “Big Construction” case, in an undated photo. (Wikidata)

Leaked correspondence

The leak case was opened a year after the SAPO and NABU seized a phone belonging to Holyk as part of the “Big Construction” investigation. A law enforcement source told the Kyiv Independent that it took a while to hack into the phone.

According to law enforcement sources, Georgy Birkadze, an alleged intermediary, talked to NABU employees on Telegram, photographed the messages and sent the photos to Holyk. The messages were later deleted but the photographs were kept in the cache of Holyk's phone, where they were found.

In secret Telegram chats, one cannot take a screenshot without notifying one’s interlocutor. To take a photograph of messages, one would have to use another phone.

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Birkadze, an advisor at the President’s Office and ex-head of Kyiv Oblast’s Brovary district administration, did not deny that the correspondence was his in an interview with Bihus.Info but denied the accusations of wrongdoing.

Birkadze received information from the NABU on corruption investigations into the Okhmadit clinic and Oleksandr Trukhin, a former MP from President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Servant of the People party, according to leaked correspondence published by Bihus.Info.

Birkadze also obtained information on forensic assessments, as well as wiretapping and search warrants, in the Holyk case.

In January 2023 Birkadze told Holyk that, according to his interlocutor from the NABU, the Holyk "case should be closed as soon as possible" because "it's dangerous."

"Remember the big case against you?" Birkadze wrote. "He said they would close it as a gift for me. He said that soon there would be a new (NABU) chief. Fuck knows what will happen. That's why we'll close it now and forget about it."

Among others, Birkadze and the NABU employees mention Kolya – an apparent reference to Mykola Bezzubenko, an acquaintance of Birkadze, former SBU official and aide at the President's Office, according to Bihus.Info.

Zelensky's former deputy chief of staff Tymoshenko is also mentioned as Birkadze's "boss" in the correspondence. Tymoshenko still worked at the President’s Office at the time of the correspondence and resigned in 2023.

Georgy Birkadze, an aide at the President’s Office and former head of Kyiv Oblast’s Brovary District Administration, in undated photo. (Georgy Birkadze/Facebook)

Uglava’s role

One of Birkadze's key interlocutors is not named in the correspondence. Instead of the name, a Japanese flag is used – an apparent reference to the "Japanese", a nickname for NABU employees. It implies that the messages come from a source inside the NABU.

Law enforcement sources told the Kyiv Independent that this could be either Uglava or someone who got information from Uglava and was passing it on.

Uglava was a prosecutor and member of ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s reformist team in Georgia in the 2000s. He has been the first deputy chief of the NABU since 2015 – essentially, the NABU’s second-in-command. He served as the acting chief of the NABU from 2022 through 2023, when the selection of a new chief was taking place.

The interlocutor that used the Japanese flag for identification told Birkadze in October 2022 that former Deputy Prime Minister and Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov wanted to meet him.

"Kubrakov knows that we are investigating him and that's why he wants to see me," the interlocutor said.

Kubrakov told Bihus.Info that he had met Uglava several days after the message was sent.

Birkadze also refers to one of his interlocutors as a "compatriot" – an apparent reference to the fact that both Birkadze and Uglava are Georgians. They also discuss Georgian food such as khachapuri and lobio.

A law enforcement source told the Kyiv Independent that only Uglava could have access to all the information mentioned in the correspondence.

"However, the style and semantics of the messages don't match Uglava's," the source said. "Uglava is likely the source but most likely he didn't write the messages."

Birkadze's interlocutor writes grammatically correct, long messages but Uglava usually writes short messages with grammatical errors, according to the source.

Another law enforcement source also told the Kyiv Independent that the messages were not written by Uglava.

"It's not his style at all," the source said.

A third law enforcement source told the Kyiv Independent that several versions are being investigated: the messages were either written by Uglava himself, or by someone on his orders, or Birkadze typed them up himself based on information from the NABU to present them to Holyk.

According to one of the versions, the messages were translated from Georgian to Russian.

"The content of these messages could be known only to a very limited number of people. Taking into account the fact that the correspondence continued for several years, only one person worked at the bureau during the whole period of the correspondence and could have access to the whole relevant amount of information and documents," the source told the Kyiv Independent, in a reference to Uglava.

The source added that other evidence also indicated Uglava's involvement in the leaks.

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Olena Shcherban, a lawyer at the Anti-Corruption Action Center, told the Kyiv Independent that only Uglava could know the whole amount of information about different cases and different NABU units mentioned in Birkadze's correspondence with the interlocutor with a Japanese flag. An ordinary detective could not know all of this information, she added.

"I don't know whether or not Uglava wrote them himself or through other people," Olena Shcherban, a lawyer at the Anti-Corruption Action Center, told the Kyiv Independent. "But I'm convinced that he's responsible for it."

Uglava's involvement is also proven by the fact that he interfered in the leak case and tried to give orders to detectives, Shcherban said, citing her sources.

The correspondence mentions that the interlocutor had a conflict with Andriy Kaluzhnysky, former head of the NABU's chief investigative department. Shcherban believes this also proves that Uglava is implicated since he clashed with Kaluzhynsky.

Ukraine's Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov during the Ukraine Recovery Conference in London, U.K on June 22, 2023. (Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Head of NABU responds

Kryvonos, who became the NABU's head in March 2023, has also come under fire for his reaction to the leak scandal.

The Anti-Corruption Action Center and Shabunin, head of the center’s executive board, have criticized Kryvonos for not firing Uglava.

Kryvonos responded to the accusations on Facebook on June 11.

"As head of the NABU, I've been a target of various campaigns to discredit me — from absurd and baseless accusations that I'm linked to the President's Office to (the allegations) of ineffectiveness," Kryvonos wrote. "Since the public campaign launched by Vitaly Shabunin and the Anti-Corruption Action Center around the leak case has been transformed into a genuine personal witch hunt, I've decided to respond publicly."

He said that a criminal investigation had been opened into the leak because it gives more tools and opportunities than an internal probe.

Kryvonos also said that internal probes had been opened into alleged pressure on whistleblowers and alleged illegal orders given to detectives.

"I will make any decisions, including human resource ones, exclusively based on investigations and in accordance with legal procedure," he said in a reference to the demands for firing Uglava.

Semen Kryvonos, chairman of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, reports at a press conference on the results of work for the second half of 2023 in Kyiv, Ukraine on Feb. 21, 2024. (Viktor Kovalchuk/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)

Shabunin responded to Kryvonos' statement on the same day, saying that nothing prevents him from carrying out both an internal probe and a criminal investigation.

"It seems that Kryvonos is reluctant to fire Uglava quickly as part of an internal probe," he said.

In contrast with an internal probe, a criminal investigation may take years, according to Shabunin.

Shabunin also argued that Kryvyonos had dragged his feet on launching the criminal case into the leak since it had been opened only two weeks after he found out about the leak.

"Kryvonos has failed to start a pre-trial investigation on time and did not ensure key conditions for a successful and objective investigation: confidentiality and speed," Shabunin added. "For at least two weeks, we have known about Uglava's attempts to interfere in investigations and his unethical behavior but there are still no conclusions or results based on these facts."

Vitaly Shabunin, head of the Anti-Corruption Action Center’s executive board, speaks at the Ukrainian school of political studies on Sept. 26, 2019. (Ukrainian school of political studies/Facebook)

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