Vovk tapes reveal corruption as lifeblood of Ukrainian law enforcement
The criminal cases against one of Ukraine’s most controversial judges, Pavlo Vovk, demonstrate in minute detail that corruption has permeated throughout Ukraine’s entire judicial system.
In 2017, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine opened an illicit enrichment case into the wealth of Vovk, head of the Kyiv District Administrative Court.
Since then, Vovk has tried to obstruct the work of and influence numerous government bodies to prevent his wealth and integrity and that of his court’s judges from being assessed. He also influenced a Constitutional Court decision that put an end to his illicit enrichment case.
The NABU has released tapes that demonstrate a large-scale system of fake lawsuits, unlawful rulings and pressure by Vovk on judges and other officials. He and other judges and officials involved have been charged with obstruction of justice, organized crime and bribery. All of them deny the accusations of wrongdoing.
Despite the NABU’s efforts to prosecute Vovk for these actions, the Prosecutor General’s Office, courts and the High Council of Justice, the judiciary’s main governing body, have helped Vovk in every way possible. As a result, the case against him was blocked in 2019 and is being buried again now after it was resurrected by the NABU in July.
Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova, a loyalist of President Volodymyr Zelensky, initially dragged her feet on applying for Vovk’s suspension as a judge. Then a court ordered the NABU to transfer the case to another body in August, while the High Council of Justice unanimously refused to suspend Vovk on Sept. 1.
Ultimately, NABU, which has investigated Vovk, was dealt a devastating blow on Aug. 28, when the Constitutional Court ruled that then-President Petro Poroshenko’s 2016 decree to appoint NABU head Artem Sytnyk was unconstitutional.
Anti-corruption activists argue that Zelensky’s administration is ultimately behind the efforts to keep Vovk in place. The President’s Office commented on the Vovk case by saying Zelensky had no right to interfere in the investigation.
Below is a breakdown of the most important information released by the NABU on the Vovk case so far.
NABU said that the lifestyle of Vovk, his deputy Yevhen Ablov and other judges of their court do not correspond with their income, which was the reason for opening the illicit enrichment cases against them.
Vovk failed to declare a house with an area of 127 square meters, a land plot, his wife’s income worth Hr 3.3 million and an Audi Q7 vehicle, the NABU said in 2017.
Over the past five years, Vovk has gone abroad more than 30 times, including luxury vacations in high-end destinations like the Maldives, with the cost of one of the trips amounting to $50,000, the NABU said in July 2020.
In 2017 to 2018, Vovk’s family members received Hr 15 million through fraud involving government bonds, the NABU said.
Meanwhile, Ablov got an apartment with an area of 150 square meters from the state for free despite having two apartments and a house, the NABU said. Later he sold the apartment for Hr 9 million, which constitutes a huge loss for Ukrainian taxpayers.
However, the illicit enrichment cases against Vovk and Ablov were closed after the Constitutional Court canceled the law criminalizing illicit enrichment in February 2019. The NABU tapes document efforts by Vovk to influence the court’s decision.
“Thanks to our common efforts, the decision to recognize the illicit enrichment (law) as unconstitutional has been born,” Vovk said in the NABU tapes. “That’s why you can buy anything you want.”
One of the court’s judges also told Vovk: “Chief, you effectively pressured Constitutional Court judges through lawmakers, and a case may be opened against you.”
High Qualification Commission
Vovk also had a conflict with the High Qualification Commission of Judges that emerged because he and other judges of his court did not want their assets and integrity to be assessed by the commission, according to the NABU tapes.
Initially Vovk asked lawyer Rostyslav Kravets to file lawsuits against the commission with the Kyiv Administrative District Court in order to create an artificial conflict of interest between the commission and the court and thus prevent the qualification assessment of the judges by the commission. Vovk and his allies also considered suspending commission members before the court rules on the lawsuits.
Vovk said in the tapes that the commission “will maybe think twice before trying to assess us” if the lawsuits are filed.
“I would fucking impose the remedy (suspending commission members) to make sure the commission never assesses me,” Ablov said.
When this plan did not work out, Vovk asked Oleksandr Krotyuk, a lawyer and a former judge of Vovk’s court, to file lawsuits establishing that the tenure of several High Qualification Commission members had already expired. This was also intended to prevent qualification assessment of the court’s judges.
“Talk to everyone who’s unhappy (with the commission) and we hope we’ll rock the boat there in order to get them the fuck out of (the commission) and bring our own guys in there,” Vovk told Bohdan Sanin, a judge of his court.
Eventually in April and May 2019 the court banned Serhiy Kozyakov and Stanislav Shchotka from fulfilling the functions of commission members and ruled that Tetiana Veselska’s tenure as a member had ended.
In the recordings, Vovk and other judges also said they would avoid being vetted by the High Qualification Commission by claiming to be sick.
“Should I attend tests (at the High Qualification Commission)?” Anna Kuzmenko, a judge of Vovk’s court, asked him in the tapes. “Given the NABU information on me, I’m not ready to attend the tests.”
“Then you’ll be sick starting from Monday,” Vovk responded.
The tapes also document pressure by Vovk on Andriy Fedorchuk, a judge of his court who issued a ruling that Vovk did not want.
In March 2019 Fedorchuk refused to recognize that Shchotka’s tenure had ended. The ruling was effectively overturned in May 2019, when Ihor Pohribnichenko, another judge of Vovk’s court, banned Shchotka from fulfilling his duties.
“Fedorchuk rejected the lawsuit,” Vovk complained. “He didn’t come to me and didn’t tell me. What an asshole… Idiot… Fuck him.”
Vovk and Sanin also tried to force Fedorchuk to re-write the decision but he did not comply.
Vovk later organized the filing of complaints against Fedorchuk with the High Council of Justice, threatened him and said that “he will no longer work” for his court.
In tapes released by NABU, Vovk discussed “a quid pro quo” with Zenovy Kholodnyuk, head of the State Judicial Administration. He would help Kholodnyuk keep his job in exchange for Kholodnyuk appointing a member of the High Qualification Commission of Judges loyal to Vovk.
Kholodnyuk was facing problems because his tenure expired, and a competition commission appointed Serhiy Pushkar as head of the State Judicial Administration to replace him in February 2019. Kholodnyuk filed a lawsuit seeking to cancel the appointment.
“Zenovy will have to do something so it can be solved politically as a quid pro quo,” Vovk said. “(Kholodnyuk) is helping us so I don’t see any point in rejecting his offer.”
Vovk also says in the tapes that Kholodnyuk must give bribes for a court ruling in his favor and its enforcement.
In March 2019 Volodymyr Keleberda, a judge of the Kyiv District Administrative Court, issued a ruling that suspended Pushkar’s appointment until Kholodnyuk’s lawsuit is considered. As a result, Kholodnyuk is still keeping his job.
Kholodnyuk repaid the court by appointing Serhiy Ostapets as a member of the High Qualification Commission in May 2019. Ostapets could not be reached for comment, and the commission did not respond to a request for comment.
According to the tapes, pro-Russian lawmaker Serhiy Kivalov played a key role in the quid pro quo with Kholodnyuk as an influential powerbroker and liaison.
Ostapets used to work as a staffer at the Rada’s law enforcement committee, which was headed by Kivalov in 2006 to 2014. Vovk himself used to be an aide to Kivalov in parliament.
Kivalov is believed to have held great influence over the judiciary ever since he was the head of the High Council of Justice in 2001 to 2004.
Antonina Slavytska, previously an aide to Kivalov and now a pro-Russian lawmaker, discussed High Qualification Commission competition procedures with Ostapets in the recordings. She is also a close acquaintance of Vovk, according to the NABU.
“Ask (Kivalov),” Ostapets told Slavytska. “We’ll pay something after that. Give us an opportunity.”
Kivalov and Slavytska did not respond to requests for comment.
In the NABU tapes, Vovk also said he had reached a deal on keeping Kholodnyuk on his job with Oleksandr Hranovsky, an ex-lawmaker from the former Poroshenko Bloc parliamentary party who journalists and civil society believe was the gray cardinal in charge of law enforcement during the previous administration.
“Zenovy Vasilyevych, I talked to Hranovsky on Friday and asked him to talk to our most high-ranking guy (an apparent reference to Poroshenko),” Vovk told Kholodnyuk. “He said he knows you and you’ve met, and (Poroshenko Bloc member Ruslan) Knyazevych has asked for you (to stay in the job). Today he talked to the president. The president said that there shouldn’t be any drastic changes, called (then High Council of Justice Chief Ihor) Benedysyuk and said that no one should be replaced.”
In 2016 Vovk was also filmed by Radio Liberty meeting with Hranovsky, who has denied influencing law enforcement.
Vovk said that Poroshenko’s top ally and lawmaker Ihor Kononenko and Poroshenko’s ex-deputy chief of staff Oleksiy Filatov were also involved in the scheme to keep Kholodnyuk in his job.
“Poroshenko went to Knyazevych, Knyazevych went to Kononenko, Kononenko asked us to do this,” Vovk said.
Kononenko denied the accusations, while Hranovsky, Knyazevych and Filatov did not respond to requests for comment.
Another quid pro quo was with Human Rights Commissioner Lyudmila Denisova, formerly a lawmaker from Interior Minister Arsen Avakov’s People’s Front party.
According to the recordings, Vovk proposed that Denisova appoint Mykola Syrosh as a member of the High Qualification Commission in exchange for his court canceling rulings against her by the National Agency for Preventing Corruption. Denisova’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
“The appeal against the decision is being considered by us,” Vovk said. “This fucking fool can’t realize that she should have come to us, and we would have fucked up the three NAPC decisions… We hold this human rights commissioner by the balls. The NAPC fucked her up over three asset declarations.”
He also instructed Syrosh to talk to Serhiy Chebotar, a former deputy and major ally of Avakov, and ask him to talk to “the minister” – an apparent reference to Avakov himself.
In April 2019 Denisova appointed Syrosh, and in June 2019 the court canceled the NAPC rulings.
The NABU tapes also feature alleged unlawful influence that Vovk exerted on the State Investigation Bureau.
Vovk and Ablov discussed interfering in a State Investigation Bureau commission’s decision not to hire Ablov as a top State Investigation Bureau official. Specifically, they discuss influencing a judge of the chief administrative court of Kyiv Oblast who was considering canceling the decision.
They also considered threatening the judge with a criminal case if he does not agree to cancel it.
“Tell him that I reached an agreement with the State Investigation Bureau’s leadership,” Vovk told Ablov. “I’m friends with two deputy chiefs of the bureau. The (State Investigation Bureau) commission is controlled by Avakov’s people. I reached an agreement with Avakov. So tell him to issue a ruling, and it won’t be appealed.”
Avakov’s press office declined to comment.
Ablov said he would meet Oleh Basai, head of the Kyiv Oblast court, while Vovk threatened to initiate a criminal case against Basai if he did not toe the line.
In June Basai’s court canceled the State Investigation Bureau’s decision on Ablov, although he failed to get a job at the bureau eventually.
According to the NABU, Vovk also influenced the State Investigation Bureau’s decision to open a case into alleged usurpation of power by High Qualification Commission members by unlawfully extending their terms.
Vovk told Andriy Alyokhin, a judge of his court, to prepare a plan for questioning commission members by the bureau, according to the tapes. He also instructed Syrosh to get in touch with a bureau investigator and ask him to question High Qualification Commission member Andriy Butenko.
“Butenko must be interrogated in a very harsh way to make him understand he will face charges,” Vovk said.