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Ukrainian who meddled against Trump in 2016 is now under Russia-corruption cloud
What happens when the face of a country's anti-corruption movement suddenly is investigated for the sort of bribery he once condemned?
Ukraine, a U.S. ally and neighboring foe of Russia, is soon to find out. And it's a case with implications in the United States, where the fallout from the unproven Trump-Russia collusion scandal has engulfed several Ukrainians.
The country's chief corruption prosecutor on Thursday opened an investigation into "suspicions" that Serhiy Leshchenko, a crusading anti-corruption member of Ukraine's parliament and former investigative journalist, accepted bribes in 2016 from a Russian source that enabled him to buy a luxury condo far above his means.
Leshchenko previously has denied any wrongdoing. The 2016 purchase of his condo was investigated once before and he was cleared of criminality. Now, however, the allegation of foreign bribe money adds an element.
On Thursday, Leshchenko responded to the new investigation on Twitter, suggesting it was evidence that his anti-corruption crusade was "hurting" prosecutors, who he said were trying to keep their jobs as a new Ukrainian president takes office. "It won't work, you coward," he added.
A Ukrainian court last December ruled that Leshchenko and the head of the country's National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) - an investigative agency modeled on America's FBI - both illegally meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election by leaking financial documents that smeared then-Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort.
The documents, known as "the black ledger," identified payments Manafort secretly received from a Russian-backed political party in Ukraine years earlier and led to Manafort's abrupt resignation from the Trump campaign. He eventually pleaded guilty to lobbying and tax violations and is in prison.
The court ruling against Leshchenko was an extraordinary admission of foreign government influence on America's last presidential election. But it wasn't Leshchenko's only intrusion into American politics, apparently.
Sworn testimony released a few weeks ago by Congress revealed Leshchenko also was "a source" of Russian dirt on Trump that was fed to Hillary Clinton's opposition research firm, Fusion GPS, the firm that created the so-called Steele dossier that led to a two-year Russia probe that recently cleared Donald Trump of colluding with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
So, a Ukrainian parliamentarian fed dirt to Clinton's team and leaked to the media information that harmed the Republican candidate's campaign? That seems like more collusion than was uncovered by special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.
But the most tantalizing information about Leshchenko surfaced in my interview Thursday with Ukraine's chief anti-corruption prosecutor, Nazar Kholodnytskyy, who revealed that the alleged bribes to the parliamentarian and the condo purchase occurred around the time that Manafort stepped down under pressure based on Leshchenko's leak.
"Absolutely that is one of the things they are going to be investigating," Kholodnytskyy told me when asked whether any of the Russian money could have been paid as an inducement or a reward for Leshchenko's meddling in the U.S. election.
The special prosecutor said "credible" information obtained from news media reports, as well as classified information the government possesses, suggest Leshchenko was receiving money from a Russian businessman and was trying to buy the condo in August and September 2016.
"One of the major pieces of evidence in the case, looking at his tax returns and financial records, he [Leshchenko] does not appear to have the resources to buy an apartment of that value," Kholodnytskyy said.
The prosecutor cautioned that Leshchenko is presumed innocent until the evidence is gathered in a pretrial investigation. But a public statement announcing the probe suggests the seriousness of the allegations.
"According to information published in the mass media, a member of the parliament systematically received millions in bribes from an entrepreneur to lobby for the latter's business interests, specifically to influence officials of government agencies and law enforcement agencies and create the necessary public opinion in the media space," the special anti-corruption prosecutor's office led by Kholodnytskyy declared.
Ukrainian officials told me Thursday that the U.S. embassy during Barack Obama's presidency applied pressure in recent years to steer investigations away from Leshchenko. A source with direct knowledge said Leshchenko was one of the people the U.S. ambassador in Kiev asked Ukrainian prosecutors not to pursue in 2016.
Everything in Ukraine should be taken with a grain of salt, given Ukraine's history of corruption and weaponizing of law enforcement against political rivals.
And one of the ironies of Thursday's announcement is that Leshchenko's case now will be investigated by detectives from the same agency - NABU - that a court found in December had collaborated with him to influence the U.S. election improperly.
Whatever happens next in Ukraine, there's growing evidence that Leshchenko and his activities during the 2016 election in America may deserve scrutiny on this side of the ocean, too.
And that alarm will sound all the more loudly if Ukrainian authorities find any evidence substantiating that Leshchenko received bribes or influence money from Russia in 2016.
In a related matter, Ukraine's chief prosecutor gave an interview with Bloomberg News reiterating comments he first made in a Hill.TV interview broadcast April 1. In that interview. Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko told me he was reopening parts of an investigation involving a Ukrainian natural gas company, Burisma Holdings, where then-Vice President Joe Biden's son, Hunter, worked as a board member. Lutsenko said he did not believe some $3 million in payments that Burisma made to Hunter Biden's U.S. company violated Ukraine law but might be of interest to U.S. authorities.
Lutsenko told Bloomberg on Thursday that he'd like to offer evidence to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, so that American authorities can check whether Hunter Biden paid U.S. taxes.
John Solomon is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work over the years has exposed U.S. and FBI intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 attacks, federal scientists' misuse of foster children and veterans in drug experiments, and numerous cases of political corruption. He serves as an investigative columnist and executive vice president for video at The Hill. Follow him on Twitter @jsolomonReports.