By Kevin Bogardus - 02/25/14 06:00 AM EST
The release from prison of former Ukraine Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko over the weekend was preceded by a two-year lobbying campaign that reached the highest levels of the Obama administration, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Tymoshenko’s husband, Oleksandr, hired the law firm Wiley Rein in December 2011 to try and secure Washington’s backing. Justice Department records show the firm’s lobbyists talked up her case through phone calls and emails with high-profile names, including Clinton, former President Bill Clinton and senior members of Congress.
In January 2013, Wiley Rein lobbyists even discussed “hacking of Eugenia Tymoshenko email account” over the phone with aides to Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Bill Burns of the State Department, Melanne Verveer and “Sec. Clinton,” according to records. Eugenia is Tymoshenko’s daughter.
The lobbyists also emailed the Clintons this past September about the Yalta Conference. Both Clintons spoke at the gathering and encouraged Ukraine to bolster ties to Europe.
Tymoshenko had been in prison since 2011, after being charged with abuse of power and embezzlement. Observers considered it a political prosecution, leading the European Union to distance itself from Ukraine and helping to fuel the violent protests that have torn the country apart.
Former Rep. Jim Slattery (D-Kan.), a partner at Wiley Rein, said he has talked to both Clintons about Tymoshenko’s case. The six-term congressman has been a personal friend of the Ukrainian leader since 2004, when he traveled to the country as an election observer.
“I have really followed Ukraine since then. I have been convinced that Ukraine is of key strategic importance, and I was surprised at how little members of Congress knew what was going on there,” Slattery said.
Wiley Rein has been paid $920,000 under the contract with Oleksandar Tymoshenko, according to disclosure records filed with the Senate. But Justice documents show funds have been funneled through a half-dozen companies and firms, as well as Tymoshenko’s father and daughter, to reach the law firm.
Slattery said the companies that contributed funds to his effort were allies of the ex-prime minister.
“It was extremely difficult for the Tymoshenkos to move money out of the Ukraine. It was tricky,” Slattery said.
Washington has often been a battleground for Ukrainian politicians and their lobbyists, bringing sizable business to K Street.
Last year, the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine, based in Brussels, paid Mercury $280,000 and Podesta Group $510,000 in lobbying fees, according to disclosure records. The group is considered close to Viktor Yanukovych, the Ukrainian president now wanted for arrest after the bloody crackdown in Kiev’s Independence Square.
Former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.), a partner at Mercury, said the firm lobbyists are “not babes in the wood” about the group’s ties to Yanukovych.
“We don’t know who exactly funds the group, but it seems it is funded by supporters of Yanukovych. But it’s not funded by the government. It’s not funded by the party. It’s funded by individuals,” Weber said.
Mercury disclosed lobbying on several pro-democracy and pro-Tymoshenko resolutions last year. Weber said their client wanted the lobbyists to gather information on the measures.
“We did tell anyone that would listen that our understanding from our sources in Europe is that these actions by the United States and Europe were going to backfire with Yanukovych. We weren’t saying keep Tymoshenko in jail. We weren’t saying that Ukraine shouldn’t do reform,” Weber said. “We did say that pressure from Congress was pushing Yanukovych closer to Putin.”
Weber said the group “was founded to supported Ukrainian accession into the EU and support broader economic ties to the United States.” The lobbyist said the firm has no plans to end its lobbying contract with the group.
“They have become a very controversial client, but we have no hesitation in defending our work for them,” Weber said.
Other Ukrainian figures have also had K Street representation.
Dmitry Shpenov, a member of Ukraine’s Parliament and Yanukovych’s political party, parted ways in the fall of 2013 with Arnall Golden Gregory and Tauzin Consultants, according to documents and lobbyists.
Yuriy Ivaniuschenko, another Ukrainian member of Parliament and steel magnate, signed a contract with law firm Sidley Austin to help secure a U.S. visa.
Tymoshenko also turned to K Street while in office, hiring TD International and powerhouse firm The Glover Park Group to represent her in Washington, according to Justice records.
Tymoshenko still has powerful allies on Capitol Hill. Both Durbin and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) talked to the Ukrainian leader on the phone after her release on Saturday, according to the lawmakers’ Twitter feeds.
In the meantime, Slattery, who visited Tymoshenko when she was behind bars, said he plans to travel to Ukraine again to meet with members of Parliament there.
Slattery said he has emailed Tymoshenko the texts of President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Sermon on the Mount to inspire her during this time of crisis.
“What I’m saying to the Ukrainians is they need to find their Lincoln or their Mandela and end this cycle of revenge,” Slattery said.
With Tymoshenko on the rise and Yanukovych having fled Kiev, Slattery and his team of Wiley Rein lobbyists could become Ukraine’s de facto men in Washington. The ex-lawmaker says the country’s political situation remains in flux.
“The short answer is, I don’t know because I don’t know what the next government is going to look like. I only represent causes that I agree with, and if good people emerge in the next government, I would consider it,” Slattery said.
“I would work for people who want a free, democratic Ukraine. I am not going to represent gangsters or thugs.”