National Association of Attorneys General

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Fighting Corruption in Ukraine

Maureen Keough, Deputy Chief, and Jim Baum, Assistant Attorney General, Rhode Island Attorney General’s Office 

We traveled to Kyiv, Ukraine, during the week of Aug. 31 through Sept. 4, 2015, at the request of the International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Division of the U.S. Department of State (INL) and the National Attorneys General Training and Research Institute to work with the newly-established anticorruption-focused Inspector General Unit (IGU) within the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO). As senior members of the Rhode Island Department of Attorney General with extensive criminal prosecution and investigative experience, we were asked to provide advice and mentoring to the members of the IGU and to evaluate the technical/equipment needs, organizational structure, and key procedures that would assist the unit in leading successful internal investigations. It was a unique experience that left a lasting impression on both of us.

The unit, which was headed by then Deputy Prosecutor General David Sakvarelidze, was comprised of approximately 10 prosecutors and/or investigators and was created to respond to the endemic corruption within the PGO. When we arrived, the unit had been in existence for less than six months but had already charged approximately 20 individuals. Of note, just weeks before we arrived, the IGU investigated and ultimately charged two senior prosecutors who were suspected of taking bribes and running protection and extortion rackets. Search warrants executed on their homes and offices led to the discovery of $500,000 in cash, 65 diamonds, and a Kalashnikov rifle. The investigation also found that officials of the Prosecutor’s Office conspired and received a UAH $3.1 million bribe (Ukrainian Hryvnia). The incredible success they enjoyed was even more astonishing given the lack of resources and staffing as well as the overwhelming resistance to reform from those who had benefitted from the corrupt system for so long.

In trying to assist the unit, we spent the majority of our time simply speaking with the prosecutors, learning the specifics of the Ukrainian criminal justice system as well as the obstacles they faced in trying to accomplish their objectives. Based upon our observations and many conversations with various members of the unit, it was our impression that the unit knew what it had to do and was more than skilled and knowledgeable about how to do it. What they lacked was political support and adequate personnel and resources to address the pervasive corruption within the PGO.

For example, the IGU was housed within the same building as the PGO and all members of the office, IGU included, were forced to use a universal database. This meant that the very individuals who may be targets of the investigations were able to access information about ongoing cases, including evidence and the identity of informants and witnesses. Any attempts to conduct audio surveillance are thwarted by the PGO’s insistence that the IGU members share the same monitoring equipment and listening rooms used by other prosecutors within the office. Any covert investigation is compromised from the onset. Just as troubling was the lack of basic technology available to the prosecutors and investigators. Things such as laptops, printers, scanners and tablets were in short supply. The vast majority of the unit used their own personal cell phones and email accounts to conduct business because they had no other alternative. They were also required to buy, at their own expense, thumb drives containing programs and documents which were necessary for conducting their investigations.

The legal constraints the unit faced were also, quite candidly, overwhelming. For example, any time the IGU or anyone in the PGO wants to undertake a “covert” investigation, they need court permission – this includes wiretaps and the search of financial records, and also includes open source investigations such as basic surveillance. It is no surprise that most of their investigations rely on witness cooperation.

In addition, Ukrainian law requires that the prosecutor notify suspects that an investigation is being started or that he or she is under suspicion. As a result, the IGU constantly deals with issues of destruction of evidence and witness intimidation before the investigative process has concluded. And, regardless of whether a defendant’s confession is legally obtained and all procedural safeguards are in place, statements made by defendants to investigators are not admissible at a later trial. Once again, given the onerous restraints placed on the IGU, it is an enormous testament to the unit’s dedication and resourcefulness that they enjoyed any success.

We did our best to provide the members of the unit with some information that we brought with us, including sample search warrants, arrest warrants, cooperation agreements, and miscellaneous statutes that may provide a blueprint for some of the necessary legal reform. We used some real-life cases to demonstrate some of the tools we use, including social media monitoring, development of cooperating witnesses, and plea agreements that have proven effective in our corruption investigations. We also provided our assessment to the INL regarding the unit’s needs and ideas for how they could continue effectively to combat public corruption.

Much more needs to be done and our fear is that there is a lack of political will to provide the necessary support to the IGU or institute any meaningful reform. Indeed, the day after the “diamond prosecutors” were arrested, Sakvarelidze found himself accused by the PGO of unjustly raiding a state institution. As a result, both of the diamond defendants were soon released on bail and the case remains in limbo. Most recently, Sakvarelidze was fired from his position within the PGO along with all of the prosecutors and investigators involved with the “diamond prosecutors” case. We have tried to find out the reason, but the answers have been elusive.

Nevertheless, both Jim and I found the work of this group and their commitment to reforming the rule of law and addressing corruption within the system to be nothing short of inspiring. It was an absolute privilege to work with these men and women and we can only hope that that they find a way to achieve the needed reforms within their profession and for their country.

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