“While the 2016 presidential race was raging in America, Ukrainian prosecutors ran into some unexpectedly strong headwinds as they pursued an investigation into the activities of a nonprofit in their homeland known as the Anti-Corruption Action Centre (AntAC).
The focus on AntAC — whose youthful street activists famously wore “Ukraine F*&k Corruption” T-shirts — was part of a larger probe by Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office into whether $4.4 million in U.S. funds to fight corruption inside the former Soviet republic had been improperly diverted.
The prosecutors soon would learn the resistance they faced was blowing directly from the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, where the Obama administration took the rare step of trying to press the Ukrainian government to back off its investigation of both the U.S. aid and the group.
“The investigation into the Anti-Corruption Action Center (sic), based on the assistance they have received from us, is similarly misplaced,” then-embassy Charge d’ Affaires George Kent wrote the prosecutor’s office in April 2016 in a letter that also argued U.S. officials had no concerns about how the U.S. aid had been spent.
At the time, the nation’s prosecutor general had just been fired, under pressure from the United States, and a permanent replacement had not been named.
A few months later, Yuri Lutsenko, widely regarded as a hero in the West for spending two years in prison after fighting Russian aggression in his country, was named prosecutor general and invited to meet new U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.
Lutsenko told me he was stunned when the ambassador “gave me a list of people whom we should not prosecute.” The list included a founder of the AntAC group and two members of Parliament who vocally supported the group’s anti-corruption reform agenda, according to a source directly familiar with the meeting.
It turns out the group that Ukrainian law enforcement was probing was co-funded by the Obama administration and liberal mega-donor George Soros. And it was collaborating with the FBI agents investigating then-Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s business activities with pro-Russian figures in Ukraine.
The implied message to Ukraine’s prosecutors was clear: Don’t target AntAC in the middle of an American presidential election in which Soros was backing Hillary Clinton to succeed another Soros favorite, Barack Obama, Ukrainian officials said.
“We ran right into a buzzsaw and we got bloodied,” a senior Ukrainian official told me.
Lutsenko suggested the embassy applied pressure because it did not want Americans to see who was being funded with its tax dollars. “At the time, Ms. Ambassador thought our interviews of the Ukrainian citizens, of the Ukrainian civil servants who were frequent visitors in the U.S. Embassy, could cast a shadow on that anti-corruption policy,” he said.
State officials told me privately they wanted Ukraine prosecutors to back off AntAC because they feared the investigation was simply retribution for the group’s high-profile efforts to force anti-corruption reforms inside Ukraine, some of which took authorities and prestige from the Prosecutor General’s Office.
But it was an unusual intervention, the officials acknowledged. “We’re not normally in the business of telling a country’s police force who they can and can’t pursue unless it involves an American citizen we think is wrongly accused,” one official said.” (Read more: The Hill, 3/26/2019)