In early March, Semen Kryvonos, 40, took the helm of the National Anti-corruption Bureau of Ukraine. In the final selection tour, he was the only one of the three candidates with no experience in law enforcement whatsoever.
This is not his first attempt to get into the Bureau. In 2016, he won the competition to lead its Odesa-based Territorial Department but his work was hindered by media allegations of undeclared property. Although the audit never confirmed any violations, Kryvonos chose to step down, saying he was unwilling to cast a shadow on the reputation of the newly created anti-corruption watchdog.
These developments never prevented Kryvonos from further cooperating with the agency in a whistleblower capacity.
Last year, serving as the head of the State Inspection for Architecture and Urban Planning, Kryvonos reported a $120,000 bribe offer by a developer's representative. The court has already handed down a verdict in that graft case.
It is noteworthy that it was under his leadership that the Bureau sealed its highest-profile exposure just yet of a top judiciary official, Supreme Court Chairman Vsevolod Kniaziev, who was caught red-handed and immediately detained in May upon receiving a $2.7 million bribe.
In total, the Bureau is handling 700 corruption cases at the moment. The latest major cases target ex-head of the National Bank Kyrylo Shevchenko, ex-MP Oleksandr Granovsky, ex-head of the State Property Fund Dmytro Sennychenko and ex-Deputy Minister for Community Development, Territories and Infrastructure Vasyl Lozynskyi.
In his first interview in his new position, Semen Kryvonos told Ukrinform whether NABU has enough resources for proper operations in terms of personnel, technology, and finance, lifted the veil off some of the most high-profile cases, spoke of cooperation with other law enforcement agencies, as well as commented on whether any senior officials are trying to influence his agency’s work.
IT’S THE SBU WHICH IS TO DECIDE WHETHER NABU WILL BE ALLOWED TO WIRETAP SUSPECTS INDEPENDENTLY
- Director, you have been in the top office for three months already. We know that you had been seeking to be part of the force since 2016. Have you already run an audit of ongoing cases? Do you see what you might need to make the Bureau’s work more efficient?
- That’s right, NABU has been my dream job. I didn’t have time for warming up here, really. I had to engage full-on right away because NABU is now working at full capacity. Among the first steps we took as a team was draw up a priority action plan to improve the Bureau’s efficiency. So we developed this plan, including based on the proposals of our units dealing with pre-trial inquiries. In fact, our detectives have themselves described the challenges they’ve been facing and relayed this information to me.
And then, based on these reports, we started optimizing the Bureau’s staff, reduced the number of administrative positions, and opened about 20 vacancies for units involved in crime investigation. We also created a department of detectives set to be stationed in the city of Dnipro.
Among our strategic tasks is to increase the number of NABU operatives by 300. Also among our priorities is to establish our own expert institution and obtain rights to autonomously wiretap suspects, which is one of the foundations of the Bureau's independence
Among our strategic tasks is to increase the number of NABU operatives by 300. Also among our priorities is to establish our own expert institution and obtain rights to autonomously wiretap suspects, which is one of the foundations of the Bureau's independence. We will be able to independently get relevant SIGINT from telecom networks without any risk to our pre-trial probes.
- Former NABU Director Artem Sytnyk previously complained that the SBU’s “K” department monitored the Bureau's motions for wiretapping certain individuals and sometimes exploited this information to the detriment of the investigation...
- I heard of such things. Today, we do our wiretapping work through the technical infrastructure owned by the Security Service of Ukraine. In 2019, amendments to the legislation were adopted, entitling NABU to autonomous wiretapping, but the issue is yet to be resolved.
- What's hampering the process?
- In my opinion, settling the issue depends precisely on the Security Service of Ukraine.
- Did you discuss this with the SBU chief, Vasyl Maliuk?
- I haven't discussed it yet, but we actively exchange correspondence. I also filed relevant letters with other law enforcement agencies because independent wiretapping is laid down in Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Program. Our operational and technical department is also actively working in this regard. Its employees are working out technical solutions to wiretap suspects independently of other agencies. There are certain technical problems, which the SBU, for its part, has voiced. It seems that a second working group has already been formed, which, based on the outcome of its work, should draft a plan for allowing us to do wiretapping autonomously in technical terms, without the SBU participation.
- What are the time frames?
- I really hope we will solve the issue as soon as possible but, unfortunately, not everything depends on NABU. As you can see, there’s long been no progress, although our legislation has allowed the Bureau to conduct autonomous wiretapping since 2019.
- In May, the Bureau’s press service released a report of a draft bill, which provides for expanding the number of NABU operatives from 700 to 1,000. Why would the Bureau need so many?
- Since the Bureau’s inception in 2015 and up to now, the number of cases it handles has increased significantly. At the outset of its work, the Bureau ran about 250 criminal cases. As of late 2022, there’ve been 716. These are complex cases that relate to serious budget embezzlement schemes and organized crime so they all require a large number of detectives. Therefore, the burden on investigative units is increasing massively.
It should also be taken into account that after our victory in the ongoing war, a significant amount of funds will be allocated for post-war recovery. Their distribution and utilization should be as accountable and transparent as possible. We must ensure effective monitoring and control of the country's recovery process. So the Bureau’s burden in this regard with also become heavier.
We must ensure effective monitoring and control of the country's recovery process
In addition, in wartime, public demand for fighting corruption has increased significantly. We have to be prepared for these challenges, so we insist on expanding our staff. In addition, this is also laid down in the anti-corruption program. We constantly communicate the issue to our international partners.
- So what about this bill? When will the Bureau be able to launch selection to hire more detectives?
- In late May, we sent the draft law to the Verkhovna Rada’s Anti-Corruption Committee. We are waiting for it to be registered, discussed, and promoted in the Verkhovna Rada.
- In order to expand your staff next year, you should already know for sure as early as this July that the bill will pass parliament and that the 2024 budget will allocate the relevant funds to this end. Have you already reached out on this matter to the parliament’s Budget Committee and the Ministry of Finance?
- We attached diligent calculations to the draft law along with a memo. Even before my tenure, the question of increasing the number of employees and financing the process was actively discussed. Funding is important and, indeed, the bill should be voted on as soon as possible. But we also count on the assistance from our donors and international partners. As the Bureau’s experience proves, it is they who cover a significant part of our material needs related to personnel training. Therefore, the financial burden will be distributed between the state budget and international donor aid.
- By what amount should your annual funding be increased, considering that this year it stood at UAH 1.2 billion?
- If we additionally hire 300 people tomorrow, we need more than a billion hryvnias. But, realizing the current serious burden on the state budget, we proposed in the transitional provisions of the bill that NABU will be expanding gradually, starting from 024. This will allow for a more even distribution of expenses and thus create no excessive burden on the state budget.
But I should repeat that, thanks to the joint work of NABU and SAPO (Specialized Anti-corruption Prosecutor’s Office – ed.), we have achieved serious gains in returning stolen funds to the state budget.
As per calculations made, the economic effect of NABU and SAPO’s work in the past year stands at over UAH 3 billion.
UAH 1.7 billion was transferred to the Armed Forces based on plea deals alone. These funds include nearly UAH 700 million for the Army of Drones initiative. Therefore, funding for the Bureau is an appropriate and timely matter, given that we also influence the level of corruption in our country.
- Let's go back to your reorganization. Of 700 employees, only a third, 240, are detectives. In addition, some say you have many various departments where there are positions of both heads and deputies, hence inflated staff. Perhaps it's worth cutting some managerial positions?
- When we optimized our staff, we did it primarily at the expense of managerial positions in our Office. If we talk about detectives, there are indeed about 250 of them in our main unit. But not only this unit is involved in probing cases – there’s also an operational and technical department, which is engaged in surveillance and wiretapping. There is also an analytical department responsible for the information and analytical support of our inquiries, which includes a forensic lab running digital research. It also has on the board a number of analysts doing financial research. There is also a unit of undercover detectives and the special operations department, which provides force support in our investigative activities.
- When will the selection competitions kick off and the new office in Dnipro become operational?
- At the moment, the selection is already underway for positions in operational and technical and analytical departments. Also, a competition has already been announced to hire 31 detectives.
- What are the expediency and prospects of creating an expert institution at NABU?
- As with wiretapping, this is a question of our autonomy. Now we are forced to turn to expert institutions under other ministries and agencies, which creates risks of delays in examinations, pressure on experts to distort the results and, accordingly, influence our pre-trial probes. We have documented facts of pressure exerted on individual experts within our cases so we are investigating some cases involving leaks from experts. Therefore, we now depend on third parties in this regard. At the same time, there is a public demand for efficient and quick investigation of crimes.
We have documented facts of pressure exerted on individual experts within our cases so we are investigating some cases involving leaks from experts. Therefore, we now depend on third parties in this regard
For our expert institution, we have premises at the National Anti-corruption Bureau that require refurbishment and appropriate equipment. We laid this down in detail in the draft law. We are looking for support in parliament. To be honest, it’s a challenge for us. However, we are constantly raising the issue with our international partners. The creation of such an expert institution is provided for in the memorandum with the IMF and in government documents. As a true realist, I realize that this process will take some time and a lot depends on political will.
- Do you see the support for these initiatives from the President’s Office?
- We never discussed such issues with the President's Office.
- Do you feel any political pressure in your current position? When you were appointed NABU Director, (former Georgian president, who also served in some official positions in Ukraine, Mikheil – ed.) Saakashvili's post resurfaced, in which he mentioned that attempts to hamper your appointment to the position of head of the State Inspection for Architecture and Urban Construction were “liquidated thanks to Andriy Yermak and Oleksiy Chernyshov."
There is no influence on me or the National Anti-corruption Bureau on the part of the president or individual officials
There is no influence on me or the National Anti-corruption Bureau on the part of the president and individual officials. Everything else is conspiracy theories based on posts from people I respect, but... Well, what are we talking about here anyway?
- What is your relationship with Mr. Yermak?
- I was asked about it at the selection competition. Indeed, I saw him at meetings of the National Reform Council. At the time of my appointment as the head of Inspection, I had no personal communication with Yermak. I sat at the same table with other experts and members of government as I was pitching the concept of urban planning. After my appointment as NABU Director, I was with him at a working group meeting on OECD issues but there was no communication other than that.
But the issue of independence is a matter of choice. After Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, we as a nation had a choice – surrender or fight. We chose independence. I understand that 700 motivated and efficient people stand behind my shoulders.
I understand that 700 motivated and efficient people stand behind my shoulders
I have enough ambitions and tools to fight off any pressure and attempts at meddling in the NABU’s independence.
On the other hand, the attempts by financial and industrial groups, authorities, political parties, and individual figures to influence the results of our pre-trial inquiries haven’t ceased for a moment. No one wants to go to jail, no one wants to be probed. Everyone wants to effectively influence such a body as the National Anti-corruption Bureau. No one has succeeded over these eight years, and I guarantee you that 100 percent of such attempts will fail over the coming seven years, too.
No one wants to go to jail, no one wants to be probed. Everyone wants to effectively influence such a body as the National Anti-corruption Bureau. No one has succeeded over these eight years, and I guarantee you that 100 percent of such attempts will fail over the coming seven years, too
- Recent reports said your acclaimed detectives Olena Krolovetska and Ruslan Habrielian quit NABU. The latter, by the way, also took part in the competition for the Bureau’s top position, ranking second, but the commission eliminated him. What’s going on? Why are professionals leaving?
- I will fight for professionals at NABU to the last. But we understand that a certain brain drain will happen anyway. For my part, I will make every effort to ensure that experienced detectives work on, passing their knowledge on to newly-hired detectives.
As for Ruslan, he won the competition to become a SAPO prosecutor before joining the Army ranks. He was drafted in April 2022. After some time, he was seconded from the Armed Forces to help his former NABU department based on the relevant appeals. I also signed these appeals a few times, as well as orders prolonging his temporary stay at NABU. Then the time came when he decided to file a report on quitting. We had a conversation with him that after he is demobilized from military service, he will continue his work in SAPO.
As for Olena, she had a personal reason for the move, of which she told me and I wouldn’t like to disclose it.
- In SAPO, 13 prosecutors were seconded to the Armed Forces, and how many employees do you currently have who are serving in the Army?
- We have 20 of our employees drafted for military service.
- Over the eight years of NABU’s operation, the Bureau underwent no independent audit. Is the Bureau ready for an audit today?
- The audit wasn’t conducted because the process was constantly politicized. I’m ready for any audits, I will cooperate as openly as possible, and I see no obstacles in this matter.
WE HAVE PLANS TO IMPLEMENT AI, NEURAL NETWORKS, AND CERTAIN ANALYTICAL TOOLS INTO THE BUREAU’S WORK
- As the head of the Architecture Inspection, you boasted of making the construction permit issuance process digital. What about NABU? Are there any digitalization plans besides the eCase Management System for electronic criminal proceedings, launched in December 2022?
- Today, the eCase Management System is still being introduced into the Bureau. We are going to complete its initial testing and full-scale operation tests by year-end before launching an e-paperwork exchange between NABU, SAPO, and HACC (High Anti-Corruption Court - ed.). We are drowning in paperwork routine so deploying the system will save plenty of our time.
We have other plans for digitalization, too. This is about introducing artificial intelligence technology, neural networks, and certain analytical tools in the Bureau’s work. This technology is able to analyze big data to single out individual elements and suspicious actions. The system allows for tracking and identifying interconnections in real-time, based on communications traffic analysis, data from the power of attorney and residence registers. It has facial recognition and audio-to-text conversion tools. Also, this is a self-taught system.
We are negotiating with a company that owns such an analytical product, and we are now conducting project preparation work. One of the simple tasks that I set for the developer, is to allow for detecting in the Prozorro tenders whether company X during a specific period of time took part in 50 procurement biddings involving abnormally inflated prices for a certain category of goods. Say, the company is owned by Mr A through Mr B, while Mr B was earlier targeted in an embezzlement probe over receiving illicit benefits, while his phone number came to light as it was used for negotiations with an oligarch. This is the volume of data that AI can handle. I have an ambition to introduce this technology into our Bureau and champion it not only in Ukraine, but also worldwide.
- That is, this system to some extent duplicates the work of NABU analysts, right?
- Not exactly. Part of this work will always be done by a human. It’s a NABU analyst who will be teaching this system, asking it the right questions: find this or that, search here or there. And then the system will analyze data and achieve results.
- Is it already being applied in other countries?
- Artificial intelligence tools are being actively introduced, but we want to be in the club of countries that successfully utilize this software. By the way, Palantir, which allowed for locating Bin Laden back in the day, is also based on similar algorithms.
- Where would you find specialists able to operate these latest technologies?
- We have a nice salary level, so experienced staffers choose the National Anti-corruption Bureau. In general, the main value here is that our specialists already employ a variety of analytical products and digital systems to effectively investigate crimes. We just need to get rid of those piles of paper. Therefore, the eCase Management System is currently being implemented. And we expect to get the digital products that I talked about to point in an array of data to a rational grain that a human wouldn’t spot.
CERTAIN JURISDICTIONS TURN DOWN OUR EXTRADITION REQUESTS DUE TO WAR
- Let's move on to the Bureau’s international cooperation. We have a working group to prepare Ukraine for joining the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Currently, drafts of amendments to o our legislation are being developed so that it meets the criteria of the organization. Please, explain why we need this membership.
- This organization practices the highest anti-corruption standards, and Ukraine’s accession will mean that we meet these standards. It's like being a member of a successful club. In order to join a successful club, you must be successful yourself and you must fulfill a number of requirements. If we become members of the OECD, believe me, it will significantly affect our economic climate. It is a good indicator for foreign investors.
If we become members of the OECD, believe me, it will significantly affect our economic climate. It is a good indicator for foreign investors
If we are in the OECD, then everything is okay, including from the point of view of anti-graft work, liability of officials and legal entities.
It is important that NABU is one of the locomotives for moving forward in the process of Ukraine joining the OECD working group. We engage in the preparation of relevant materials and development of legislative changes, at least in terms of the introduction of liability of legal entities.
- How does the Bureau develop cooperation with the competent bodies in other countries in terms of extradition of suspects?
We have a problem with the extradition of corrupt officials. Some jurisdictions refuse to extradite individuals due to the ongoing war
- We have a problem with the extradition of corrupt officials. Some jurisdictions refuse to extradite individuals due to the ongoing war. Millions of Ukrainians are suffering because of the war raging in the country and it appears that this is okay but yet it is dangerous for corrupt officials to stay here. This is infuriating. This is the case where Russia not only destroys our infrastructure and kills our people but also saves our corrupt officials, no matter how sad it sounds. It definitely shouldn't remain that way and there shouldn't be such a debate in the first place. Those guilty must be brought to justice.
But there are still positive results in such negotiations. In March, the former chairman of the board of the State Food and Grain Corporation (Petro Vovchuk – ed.) was handed over to us from Lithuania, and we kindly met him. He provided relevant testimony and there is already a court verdict that has entered into force.
In general, NABU has wide connections, especially with developed nations. We actively communicate through liaison officers at embassies, we have gained access to Europol’s SIENA secure information exchange network application, which is used for the purpose of information exchange between NABU, Europol, EU member states, and third countries.
We often acquire information at an operational level. But there are problems with some jurisdictions returning our inquiries.
- Which ones are you talking about?
- These are jurisdictions that are beyond the European Union. There are problems to this end but we are working to address them.
We are planning to sign a memorandum with the European Prosecutor's Office. Recently, we were in France where we discussed the topic with the leadership of the Central Office for Combating Financial and Tax Crimes of the Criminal Police, which at one time arrested (ex-president of France - ed.) Nicolas Sarkozy. They met with the head of the National Financial Prosecutor's Office and representatives from the Ministry of Justice of France. That is, we manage to achieve results through personal contacts.
There is also the issue of non-response by offshore jurisdictions. This is part of their policy. In fact, they hide the funds, although they do realize their possible origin.
- On the Bureau’s website, there was information that on April 25, your employees, together with their British counterparts, took part in joint investigative actions within the framework of the inquiry targeting a criminal organization exposed in the fall of 2021 in Odesa. I understand that Volodymyr Halanternyk was a person of interest in that. What evidence was obtained in the UK?
- This is an excellent example of cooperation with the UK’s National Crime Agency. I have on my desk a commemorative sign marking the start of our cooperation with this respectable body, which very often helps us with tips.
- Have you filed an extradition request for the ex-chairman of the National Bank, Kyrylo Shevchenko?
- As far as I know, such a request was sent through the Prosecutor General's Office, but I cannot yet comment on the result achieved. Again, the same question may arise regarding extradition – “due to the war...”
- Has the extradition request for Oleksandr Hranovskyi, who was spotted in Vienna together with Shevchenko, been submitted?
- NABU and SAPO are currently in the final stage of preparing the required paperwork. In this case, only recently, the HACC Appeals Chamber passed a ruling upholding his arrest in absentia. So we had been waiting for that ruling to be handed down.
- And how is the issue of extradition from Spain of the ex-head of the State Property Fund, Dmytro Sennichenko, progressing?
- The court is still considering a motion on selecting a preventive measure for him in the form of custody remand. After a positive court decision enters into force, we will have the opportunity to file a “red card” with Interpol and launch the procedure for putting him on the international wanted list with subsequent extradition to Ukraine. Now the lawyers are filing objections in court, that is, they are delaying the proceedings in order to prevent his detention and extradition.
In the case of the State Property Fund, we have not yet completed the pre-trial inquiry as we are working on expanding the circle of suspects. Recently, we took some investigative actions in the Czech Republic, where we obtained some interesting evidence so we will move forward in our inquiry. This case is interesting from the point of view of its further prospects.
- There is information that the president stripped Ihor Kolomoiskyi of his Ukrainian citizenship. The cases where the latter appears are being investigated in both Ukraine and the USA. Could this in any way affect his prosecution if it is on the table?
- If he is on the territory of Ukraine and has committed a crime here, then he must be held accountable according to our laws. Stripping him of citizenship would create risks for us in the event that he crosses out of Ukraine and we need to seek his extradition for prosecution.
- In the fall of last year, NABU employees searched Kolomoiskyi’s residence in connection with the seizure of Ukrnafta property and funds. Are there grounds for declaring him a suspect in that case?
- We make no announcements regarding charges set to be pressed but we are actively working. Now we are waiting for the economic forensic examination to be conducted before we decide how we move forward with the circle of suspects, the damage inflicted, and everything else related to that case.
- Some of those targeted in your cases are hiding abroad along with their assets. Are you aware of the total sum seized abroad within the Bureau’s cases?
- What is important to us is not these stats but actual work on making sure these people are brought back to Ukraine and held accountable.
- How is the administrative confiscation in Switzerland of 130 million francs belonging to Yuriy Ivaniushchenko, which had been frozen since 2014 in the cases of the "Seventh Kilometer market raid in Odesa and the embezzlement of the so-called “Kyoto aid money" progressing?
- These funds are subject to a special procedure within the framework of criminal proceedings. This is actually a delicate story. The process is underway. I hope that these funds will be returned.
- How is the case going involving the return to Ukraine of 600 kilograms of gold, seized in Switzerland, belonging to (former president - ed.) Viktor Yanukovych's entourage? That case had been probed by the Department of International Legal Cooperation of the Prosecutor General's Office under the leadership of Yevhen Yenin before it was forwarded to NABU in 2019.
- I cannot disclose information on the gold return procedure, as it is related to cooperation with international authorities. This is a sensitive issue, so I wouldn’t like to delve into specifics right now, but we do hope to get everything back.
NABU WILL PUT SIGNIFICANT FOCUS ON FIGHTING CORRUPTION IN PROGRESS SO WE WILL EMPLOY MASSIVE RESOURCES TO THIS END
- What about the cases "inherited" from the Prosecutor General's Office in 2019? Are there any other cases besides that of the appropriation of the Mezhyhirya residence that can be brought to court? What will happen to other such cases and how many are there in general being investigated by the Bureau?
- Wherever we have jurisdiction, we probe them, carrying out investigative actions. Recently, the pre-trial inquiry into the former Vice-PM from the Yanukovych era was completed, and the case file is now being reviewed. That is, these cases remain in our focus.
- Are there any prospects in the case concerning ex-Minister of Justice Olena Lukash?
There are prospects in every case where there are signs of a crime committed and the necessary evidence gathered
- There are prospects in every case where there are signs of a crime committed and the necessary evidence gathered. We intend to take this case to court.
I wish I could tell you more but here are the requirements of the law and the logic of the process by which we move to restore justice.
- Recently, during a meeting with the Canadian ambassador, you said that a significant part of the Bureau's resources will be directed to exposing "active" schemes, that is, corruption that is in progress, not the schemes that operated two to four years ago. What does it mean? Will other cases be shut down or frozen?
- No, this is a matter of NABU work priorities.
We have started joint work with the SAPO and have prioritized cases regarding crimes that are being plotted or committed by top officials, heads of financial and industrial groups, and criminal organizations as we speak
In this direction, we have started joint work with the SAPO and have prioritized cases regarding crimes that are being plotted or committed by top officials, heads of financial and industrial groups, and criminal organizations as we speak. This means that NABU will put a significant focus on fighting corruption in progress so we will employ massive resources to this end. But this certainly doesn’t mean we will not investigate cases related to past periods. We are talking about priorities. And this is already visible in the Bureau’s cases over the past six months, when we actively documented and exposed the activities of active criminal organizations and officials. Among them is the case of the ex-deputy minister for communities and territorial development and the case of the former head of the Supreme Court. We’re seeing more and more of such cases. Our main efforts will be dedicated to this priority work.
- Are you sure that you will bring the cases of Kniazev and Lozynskyi to completion?
- These people, in fact, were caught red-handed, upon obtaining an illicit benefit. I am confident that we have gathered enough evidence to press charges and will also collect enough evidence to hand down indictments and forward these cases to court. I think that from the pieces of the case file that we have published, which is only a part, it is clear that there are signs of a crime in place. The rest is now up to detectives and prosecutors.
- I attended the joint briefing of the NABU and SAPO leadership, where journalists were told about the detention of the head of the Supreme Court, and prosecutor Oleksandr Omelchenko said that the case was initiated under Art. 368 of the Criminal Code – receiving a bribe – and Art. 369 of the Criminal Code – giving a bribe. Will charges be pressed against representatives of the bar association and businessman Kostyantyn Zhevago, who appear in the case as those who paid for the ruling in the Ferrexpo case?
- Currently, the investigation is working to clarify the complicity of other individuals. The issue of crime qualification and pressing charges is being resolved. Today I will not announce the circle of suspects in this case. The case is fresh, it is being actively documented and investigated, so it’s just too early to talk about it.
- Will charges be pressed in this case against the judges of the Supreme Court’s Grand Chamber, who were found with marked bills from the bribe in question?
- We are working to expand the circle of suspects, gather evidence, and document criminal actions. The case does have prospects but it will take time.
- Do you know where the bribe amount of almost $3 million seized in this case will go?
- If the court finds the defendants guilty of this crime, the funds may be confiscated as state revenue.
- I am asking about this because in April 2022, there were reports that the record-breaking bribe of ex-Ecology Minister Zlochevsky in the amount of almost $6 million, which was intended for the heads of NABU and SAPO, was directed to the Army by the HACC decision, although there’s been no verdict in that case yet.
- It is important to understand that there are three ways to forward seized funds to the Armed Forces.
That’s when a suspect voluntarily does so in exchange for a lighter preventive measure. Here we are talking about the transfer of bail already paid.
Also, that’s when a suspect or indicted person hands over money as part of a plea deal. This comes as part of the punishment or confirmation that the deal is in the interests of the state.
These first two ways are voluntary, unlike the third – a court ruling on forced alienation of property.
In the case of the former Minister of Ecology, the funds were seized and last year they were allocated for the needs of the Armed Forces in this way.
- Is it true that an undercover NABU agent – a young girl who secured a job in Horetskyi's law firm - helped document corruption in the Supreme Court?
- None of that is true (smiles - ed.).
- So was there a girl involved or not?
- No comment here.
- How did the Bureau recruit Kyrylo Horburov, a notary who documented Kniazev upon receiving a bribe? Rumor has it that the two have known each other for 20 years and that the two were really close...
- The pre-trial inquiry is ongoing. I can't talk about this part of the case. Even if someone squeezes my fingers with the door (smiles - ed.).
The active phase of documenting this crime began late March. Then we obtained certain evidence of signs of criminal activity and extortion of bribes. Some of the people who documented this case had no sleep for a month.
Some of the people who documented this case had no sleep for a month
A tremendous amount of work has been done. We were very concerned to make sure there are no leaks, to properly document the crime and conduct investigative actions. That is, it was a lot of tension and stress. Very few people were aware of this case. I don't know if anyone will ever write a movie script based on this case, but it will definitely go down in textbooks. Trust me, it's top gun level!
Even those who documented the crime said they outdid themselves.
I don't know if anyone will ever write a movie script based on this case, but it will definitely go down in textbooks. Trust me, it's top gun level!
- How many detectives took part in the operation?
- At the initial stage, a limited circle of people knew about the case. Only a few. And at the final stage, when we understood that a bribe was about to be handed over, more than 60 detectives were involved in the raids. This is not including the employees of the special operations department and the operational and technical unit, who performed their part of SIGINT work and surveillance.
- Did you discuss Kniazev's detention with President Volodymyr Zelensky?
If we talk about my call with the President, it was after the head of the Supreme Court was detained and searches were underway at the Supreme Court headquarters. It was he who called me, asking as the head of state what was happening in the Supreme Court
- If we talk about my call with the President, it was after the head of the Supreme Court was detained and searches were underway at the Supreme Court headquarters. It was he who called me, asking as the head of state what was happening in the Supreme Court. I told the president that the head of the government’s judicial branch was detained for taking a bribe. This was the entire context of the conversation
- What was his reaction?
- He took a very calm and balanced approach to this.
- Wasn’t he startled?
- No, he wasn’t startled. He asked what the essence of the case was. I say: this is about receiving a bribe. He goes: ‘Okay, I got you.’ There were no emotions involved – either negative or positive – nothing like that. It was a very reserved conversation.
- Usually, the court warrants such investigative actions, but you came to the top man in the judicial system without such warrants...
- Yes, the head of the Supreme Court at that time could not have been aware of the raid at his premises. We did not ask the court for a warrant to conduct investigative actions. Those searches were urgent.
- You were appointed NABU Director in early March. When did you learn about this case?
- Immediately. Such things are always reported within the first few days. As a director, I knew that this crime was being documented.
At the beginning of my time in office, learning about such a case had a "Wow!" effect on me
At the beginning of my time in office, learning about such a case had a "Wow!" effect on me. Then we were watching the inquiry develop pumped up on adrenaline and focused on the result. And when the scheme was exposed, I felt huge pride for the National Anti-corruption Bureau and the methods employed in the operation.
But as for a person, a citizen, this is a very unpleasant story.
I remember when the first adrenaline rush passed, all organizational nuances and calls from everywhere were over, it was late at night and we sat with my Deputy Gizo Uglava in a state of stupor. I realized that this was the head of the highest judicial body, the person of last resort in any dispute in the country. He took a bribe. It is humiliating, disgusting, and painful. What do we do with it next? I hope that the election of the Supreme Court of Appeals will improve the judicial system and Ukraine will have a great future. And we just need to keep working.
I hope that the election of the High Qualification Commission of Judges will improve the judicial system and Ukraine will have a great future. And we just need to keep working.
- Are you sure of the legal purity of how the bribe receipt was documented? I ask because recently, HACC sentenced the ex-judge of Kyiv’s Dniprovskyi District Court, Mykola Chaus, to 10 years of imprisonment for bribery, at the same time admitting a bribe provocation by NABU. Is there a possibility that this could happen in Kniazev's case as well?
- Head of our undercover detectives unit Borys Indychenko and Prosecutor Oleksandr Omelchenko, who were engaged in this case, understood from the very start, what official is being documented. And the emphasis was not only on catching him red-handed but also on the quality of our evidence. Therefore, I believe that we have obtained enough evidence for the prosecutors to support our charges in court.
- In your opinion, does Kniazev's case indicate the failure of the anti-corruption reform or, on the contrary, has this reform finally become effective?
- I think it shows that anti-corruption bodies are working. I am speaking for NABU now. After the arrest of the head of the Supreme Court, we received a lot of calls from Ukrainian law enforcement agencies, heads of foreign law enforcement bodies, and liaison officers from embassies. We were told that this is top-level. Therefore, NABU succeeded as an effective project. And I know for sure that NABU, SAPO and HACC need to be strengthened. We, for our part, will ensure the result. We still have a lot of interesting cases that we’re working on. We have not exhausted our potential with the Supreme Court case so we will move on.
I WANT CORRUPT OFFICIALS TO FEAR NABU AND UKRAINIAN PEOPLE’S FURY BECAUSE THESE MONSTERS DEFINITELY HAVE NO FEAR OF GOD
- How is the investigation progressing in the case of the former Deputy Minister for Community Development, Territories and Infrastructure Vasyl Lozynskyi?
- In this case, it was the method of obtaining an illicit benefit, which we encountered for the first time, that was rather interesting.
We got a tip about a scheme being shaped up for the embezzlement of part of the money allocated for the purchase of mobile boiler houses, pumping stations, and trucks for the State Emergency Service units across regions. Kickbacks at 8-12 percent have been agreed - depending on the goods - for procurements worth UAH 1.4 billion. During the transfer of the illicit benefit, the so-called relocation of funds was applied. At one point, the necessary amount is entered in cash into a shadow-market forex booth, and then the same amount is withdrawn from another shadow-market forex booth without the money actually being part of any transaction across the network.
During the transfer of the illicit benefit, the so-called relocation of funds was applied. At one point, the necessary amount is entered in cash into a shadow-market forex booth, and then the same amount is withdrawn from another shadow-market forex booth without the money actually being part of any transaction across the network
This option is now very often applied by criminals. NABU detectives documented the bribe receipt in this way. And at the moment when the funds were being relocated, the main figure, a former deputy minister, was choosing a watch in a well-known boutique.
- How was this case conceived?
- We got a tip from an agent. In this case, our operative penetrated a criminal group, obtained information that there are already agreements in place on the distribution of funds, and identified the parties involved. Then we nabbed them red-handed during the bribe handover in this way.
- By the way, are bribes offered in bitcoins now?
- Bitcoins are now actively used as a way to legalize funds obtained through crime and as a way to transfer illicit profits. All our detectives now, thanks to the U.S. Embassy, the State Department, undergo a CryptoEdge multi-level training: they learn how crypto exchanges work, in which jurisdictions they operate, and how to track all these transactions.
Bitcoins are now actively used as a way to legalize funds obtained through crime and as a way to transfer illicit profits
- What is the situation with the violation of the Bureau's jurisdiction? Earlier, the head of the detectives unit, Andrii Kaluzhynskyy, claimed that other law enforcement agencies register clone cases in order to influence the course of the investigation...
- The problem does exist, and it creates risks for our pre-trial investigations, but this has never stopped us from bringing the case to the completion. We constantly fight with this negative phenomenon. This is a matter of compliance with legislation, first of all, on the part of pre-trial investigation bodies.
- Early this year, a report appeared about the MoD purchasing "eggs at UAH 17 per piece", and the State Bureau of Investigation initiated a case under Art. 114-1 of the Criminal Code into the obstruction of the legitimate activity of the Armed Forces during a special period. Ex-Deputy Minister of Defense Shapoval is charged under the same article. On the one hand, it looks like fighting corruption because the procurement obviously saw inflated prices, and on the other hand, there is no mention of corruption in the charges pressed against the official. And we know that the SBI has no authority to investigate corruption-related offenses. Is it possible that the SBI and NABU will create a joint investigative team in this case based on the example of a similar case in which ex-Deputy Minister of Defense Halimon is targeted? In April 2023, there was information that an amended charge was pressed in this case jointly with NABU, although the previous qualification was the same...
- We never requested the case file since Article 114-1 of the Criminal Procedure Code is beyond our jurisdiction. At the same time, NABU detectives did study the case file because it might contain information that we might need to investigate our own cases.
Now, I wouldn’t say that NABU's jurisdiction was violated in this particular case. It is obvious that as a result of investigative actions in this case, evidence that is of interest to us may be obtained. In the future, I can by my own decision, in agreement with the prosecutor, request that this case be forwarded to NABU.
- Are there many cases that NABU is working on, related to embezzlement in our defense industry?
We have nearly 70 criminal proceedings related to the defense field
- We have nearly 70 criminal proceedings related to the defense field in various respects. This doesn’t mean though that they have been initiated just recently.
But some of them, nearly 30 proceedings, have been opened since the full-scale invasion.
- How is the investigation progressing in the so-called "Big Construction" case?
- NABU’s cases related to the embezzlement of funds for the construction and repair of motorways in large infrastructure objects will be completed. With regard to the case of the Dnipropetrovsk Regional State Administration, we are still investigating it. Currently, we are waiting for the appropriate examinations to be completed, studying the evidence obtained, and, I hope, we will bring it to its logical conclusion – the pressing of charges and all the relevant investigative actions that follow. Work is now underway to establish the circle of individuals complicit in that crime and to assess the damage.
NABU’s cases related to the embezzlement of funds for the construction and repair of motorways in large infrastructure objects will be completed
- The latest reported charges pressed by NABU are related to procurement procedures at the Ukrzaliznytsia railway operator. There seems to be a persistent problem with this. How can this be resolved?
- We have a whole unit that has been investigating cases related to violations at Ukrzaliznytsia since 2015. There are about 80 such cases being investigated. Damages amount to over UAH 700 million. We have already prosecuted eight heads of Ukrzaliznytsia departments, all responsible for procurement.
There is a constant problem with the embezzlement specifically in public procurement; there are signs of some back offices being set up to receive kickbacks. This indicates the need for systemic changes at Ukrzaliznytsia to eliminate the very cause of corruption. To this end, we submitted to the government our recommendations, which remain relevant, and we hope that the Cabinet will ultimately fix the problem that has developed at Ukrzaliznytsia as regards procurement.
We have a whole unit that has been investigating cases related to violations at Ukrzaliznytsia since 2015
- Finally, we would like to ask what kind of relations NABU has with other anti-corruption bodies — SAPO and HACC?
- After Oleksandr Klymenko was appointed to lead SAPO, the process seriously shifted. The number of proceedings forwarded to court increased, as did quality and pace of pre-trial inquiries.
Oleksandr has worked at NABU, so he is aware of the challenges detectives face and how the work within the Bureau is structured. This is an additional advantage. Therefore, I’m optimistic about our cooperation.
If we talk about HACC, after this court was established, consideration of motions and cases is heaven and earth compared to the situation in district courts with which we dealt before HACC. We have made significant progress since then, but the three institutions need to be strengthened and changes need to be made to improve their efficiency. This is about expanding the staff at NABU, SAPO, and HACC. It is also about providing greater institutional capacity to prosecutors at the SAPO. Investments in anti-corruption infrastructure must continue, too.
After Oleksandr Klymenko was appointed to lead SAPO, the process seriously shifted
At the same time, it is necessary to change the very institutions where corruption prevails. We often see how after the liquidation of certain schemes or back offices, others emerge after a certain time. Why? The system allows this to happen, it is built in such a way that it itself produces such back offices and "supervisors". That is, without legislative changes and the introduction of new procedures, the fight against corruption will definitely not be as efficient as possible.
- Do you have a "maximum task" that you plan to accomplish while in office?
- When I just won the selection competition, I recorded a video where I said that my goal in this position is for every corrupt official in Ukraine to fear three things: God, the fury of the Ukrainian people, and NABU. After my appointment, having gained access to information, I understood what was happening, and now I can say that my ambition is for corrupt officials to fear NABU and the Ukrainian people’s fury because these monsters definitely have no fear of God.
And my ambition is for Ukraine to finally become a corruption-free state.
Gradually, we will change our country for the better and become part of the European family
I want NABU to be proud of even more high-profile exposures and to achieve the most important goal - purging our society of corruption. That’s because people who fight at the front lines and give their last to the Armed Forces of Ukraine deserve a better future. My children deserve a better future and your children deserve a better future. And our main vision is to achieve this result. I think I have everything to achieve this: a dream team, ambition, and will.
We start processes in society that lead to positive results. I hope that the newly elected High Qualification Commission of Judges will elect honest judges to become part of our judicial system, and this will have positive consequences.
So, gradually, we will change our country for the better and become part of the European family.
Maryna Synhaivska, Alla Shershen
Photos by Hennadiy Minchenko