New tapes document links between scandalous judge Vovk and Avakov
A new film by the Slidstvo.Info investigative journalism agency provides a look into the shady dealings of controversial judge Pavlo Vovk and his deputy.
Among the new discoveries are the duo’s links with Interior Minister Arsen Avakov and his allies.
The show released new wiretapped conversations that were recorded as part of a corruption case against Vovk, the head of the Kyiv District Administrative Court. The case is investigated by the National Anti-Corruption Bureau.
Ukrainian civil society broadly views Vovk’s court as the epitome of injustice and lawlessness. Vovk has been charged with obstruction of justice and corruption, but Ukraine’s entire state system has helped him escape dismissal and prosecution.
The judge has denied all accusations of wrongdoing and Avakov did not respond to requests for comment. Vovk earlier claimed that the investigators’ tapes of his conversations were fake.
Using the recordings of Vovk, Slidstvo.Info showed that the judge had often spoken with Serhiy Chebotar, a former deputy and current close associate of Avakov. The two men discussed with Chebotar appointing a person loyal to Vovk to the High Qualification Commission of Judges, which vets, hires and fires judges.
They planned to do it through Human Rights Commissioner Lyudmyla Denisova, a former lawmaker that comes from the same party as Avakov, People’s Front.
In an obscenity laden conversation, Vovk also spoke of pressuring Chebotar to make him pressure Avakov.
“We’ve got to persuade the minister to add a second person (to the High Qualification Commission),” he said.
The plan appeared to work. In April 2019, Denisova appointed Mykola Syrosh to the High Qualification Commission.
Vovk also boasted that he had met Avakov himself.
“Avakov is going to the U.S. again tomorrow,” Vovk said on one of the tapes. “I visited him yesterday, and we talked.”
Meanwhile, Vovk’s deputy, Yevhen Ablov, said in the tapes that he had received books about the police and the opportunity to meet Avakov as a gift from Chebotar. Ablov, in turn, invited Avakov and Chebotar to a party.
In April, Vovk said that, thanks to Ablov, the court was associated with Avakov, referring to his deputy with the nickname “backpacks” — a reference to one of the biggest scandals surrounding Avakov.
In 2017, Avakov’s son Oleksandr and Chebotar were charged by the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) with embezzling Hr 14 million ($550,000) by supplying overpriced backpacks to the Interior Ministry. The case against the two men appeared strong: Published video evidence showed Chebotar and Oleksandr Avakov discussing the corrupt deal.
That same year, Ablov ruled that an auction to supply backpacks to Avakov’s Interior Ministry was legal, helping to whitewash the minister.
Then, in 2018, Chief Anti-Corruption Prosecutor Nazar Kholodnytsky’s office closed the case.
According to previous recordings of Vovk, he and Ablov also discussed interfering in the State Investigation Bureau’s decision not to hire Ablov as one of its officials. A judge of another court was considering the case. Vovk and Ablov proposed threatening the judge with a criminal case if he doesn’t support Ablov.
“The (State Investigation Bureau) commission is controlled by Avakov’s people,” Vovk said. “I reached an agreement with Avakov. So tell him to issue a ruling, and it won’t be appealed.”
According to the new tapes released by Slidstvo.Info, in February 2019, Roman Hovda, then chief prosecutor of Kyiv, came to Vovk and asked him not to uphold a lawsuit by Oleksandr Avdiyenko to be reinstated at the prosecutor’s office. Vovk said that the best strategy would be to delay the case.
“He won’t win. Everything is ok,” Vovk told Hovda, who is currently the first deputy prosecutor general. “The only court that you can be completely sure about is ours.”
Hovda, who can potentially influence the Vovk investigation as second-in-command after Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova, called Avdiyenko “an asshole” in the tapes.
The court considered the case for half a year and eventually rejected Avdiyenko’s lawsuit.
Hovda confirmed that he talked to Vovk about Avdiyenko.
“I have not reached any bargains with Vovk,” Hovda told Slidstvo.Info. “I didn’t ask him to make specific decisions and did not contact the judge who considered the case. There’s no crime there, although maybe there is an ethical problem.”
Hovda has a controversial reputation. He used to work in the prosecution unit that supervised the police during the EuroMaidan Revolution and was accused of persecuting EuroMaidan protesters. Hovda denied the accusations in a response to the Kyiv Post.
In 2015, Hovda was the chief prosecutor of Odesa Oblast and clashed with the region’s then-governor, Mikheil Saakashvili, who accused him of banditry and racketeering. Hovda denies the accusations.
Hovda also signed off on the fraud charges against ex-Deputy Prosecutor General Vitaly Kasko in 2016 in what anti-corruption activists deemed to be a political vendetta by then-Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin.
He allegedly came in handy for several tainted prosecutor generals: Hovda was both a deputy of Shokin and the chief prosecutor of Kyiv under then-prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko.
The new tapes also mention Andriy Bohdan, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s former chief of staff.
In the recordings, Vovk mentioned him before Zelensky was elected president in April 2019.
“There is a certain Andriy Bohdan, and he’s negotiating with everyone. He’s determining who will do what and what will happen, who they’re going to go after, etc.,” Vovk said.
A source familiar with the matter told the Kyiv Post that Vovk had also talked about vacationing with Bohdan in June 2019. The source spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Bohdan did not respond to a request for comment.
Vovk case obstruction
The criminal case against Vovk has faced unprecedented obstruction from Ukraine’s entire state system.
In July 2020, the NABU charged Vovk and other judges of his court with organized crime, usurpation of power and bribery.
In August, judge Serhiy Vovk of the Pechersk Court — of no relation to Pavlo Vovk — ordered that the case be transferred from the NABU to another law enforcement body. Anti-corruption activists interpreted this as an effort to kill the case, and the ruling is being appealed.
On Sept. 1, the High Council of Justice also unanimously refused to suspend Vovk and other judges implicated in his case.
In wiretapped conversations released by the NABU, Vovk mentioned the involvement of several members of the High Council of Justice in his alleged bargains with the council. They did not respond to requests for comment.
On Oct. 12, Judge Serhiy Vovk also ordered the Prosecutor General’s Office to cancel the charges against Pavlo Vovk because they had allegedly been brought in violation of procedure. This ruling is also being appealed.
The High Anti-Corruption Court was scheduled to consider bail for Vovk first on Oct. 22 and then on Oct. 29. However, he failed to show up for both hearings. Now, the bail hearing has been postponed until Nov. 5.
A source in law enforcement told the Kyiv Post that Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova continues obstructing the Vovk case. The source spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Specifically, Venediktova has refused to extend the Vovk investigation. Instead, former Chief Anti-Corruption Prosecutor Nazar Kholodnytsky had to extend it before he resigned in August, according to the source.
Venediktova has also refused to have Vovk forcibly brought to be interrogated after he refused to come voluntarily, to conduct further searches in the Vovk case and to wiretap him, the source said.
Venediktova and her office did not respond to requests for comment.
Editor’s Note: This report is part of the Investigative Hub project, within which the Kyiv Post team monitors investigative reports in the Ukrainian media and brings them to the English-speaking audience. The project is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy.