After almost two months behind bars in, a North Dakota farmer stood before a panel of three judges last week who ruled that he should remain in detention before a trial begins in which he will have to defend himself against allegations that he tried to arrange the assassination of the country's agriculture minister, one of his attorneys told CBS News.
Kurt Groszhans, from Ashley, North Dakota, is facing several charges, including attempted murder, attempted extortion and attempted kidnapping. He denies all the charges against him, according to lawyer Pavel Ustimenko. The charges were filed by the National Police of Ukraine. If convicted, Groszhans could be sentenced to life in prison, though Ustimenko said a sentence between 12 and 15 years was more likely.
Groszhans' sister, however, tells CBS News that the charges against her brother are "an attempt to cover up political corruption" in Ukraine. Kristi Magnusson said in a statement provided to CBS News on Friday that it was, "amazing" to her that Ukraine should be "desperate for U.S. military and political support" while its president and the minister in question were "choosing to cover up their corruption by persecuting an innocent American."
A complicated case
Groszhans moved to Ukraine in 2017, reportedly to explore his family heritage and, as he wrote in an August 30, 2021 blog post, to invest in Ukraine's agro-industrial sector. He wrote that he hired a man named Roman Leshchenko to manage his farming business in the country, but that from day four, Leshchenko "began to withdraw my working capital … and use my seeds on his lands." Groszhans also claimed that Leshchenko later made a large contribution to the political party led by Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who went on to . In 2020, Zelenzkyy appointed Leshchenko to be the country's Minister of Agrarian Policy and Food.
Calling himself "a deceived American investor," Groszhans wrote bluntly: "Roman Nikolaevich Leshchenko deceived me. And I have been suing him for several years."
The American claimed that judges delayed his lawsuits, explaining that he "should understand who you are suing." Leshchenko's lawyer, Tetyana Kozachenko, told CBS News that the funds lent to him by Groszhans were "returned in full," and that the dispute was related to "business transactions."
Groszhans' attorney, however, said his client wanted more than the return of $250,000 in cash that was taken — he was also seeking to cover the costs of "soy beans, corn, use of machinery" and legal fees totaling around $1 million.
Magnusson, the American's sister, said on Friday that Groszhans "was defrauded by a local employee, who then used the stolen money to bribe his way into the current president's cabinet."
She accused Leshchenko of previously threatening to have her brother arrested "if he kept talking about the fraud. Then Kurt was arrested."
Groszhans was arrested on November 18, 2021, his attorney told CBS News.
Ustimenko said the police claimed to have recordings of Groszhans' then-assistant, a Ukrainian woman named Olena Bogach, meeting with "other people" whom Ustimenko said appeared to be police informants, discussing "how to get money from Mr. Leshchenko and along with that, other very strange things, discussing kidnapping… how to do something with him." According to Ustimenko, however, Groszhans was rarely present during those conversations and even when he was, he could hardly speak Russian or Ukrainian, so without receiving the alleged audio files, Groszhans and his legal team couldn't "know what exactly was translated to him," or what prosecutors claimed he had said in those meetings.
Ustimenko said Groszhans was drawn into the conversations with Bogach and other Ukrainians by promises of help to "find decent land for farming" in the country.
According to Ustimenko, Groszhans said that while he was visiting the restaurant where the final meeting took place on November 17, "he was poisoned with psychotropic substances" and couldn't understand where he was or what was happening. He didn't even remember leaving the restaurant, his lawyer said.
Groszhans' legal team said investigators had denied their request to test his blood samples.
"I believe this is all a set-up," Ustimenko said. "Not only does Kurt deny the charges, but there is no proof of any crime in the material that police gave us." He noted that Bogach, Groszhans' former assistant, is also now in detention, accused of trying to hire a hitman to kill Leshchenko.
CBS News sought comment from Bogach's attorney for this story, but there was no response after one week.
"What happened is a shocking situation for me. But I want to say this: If someone thinks that the threats, assassination, blackmail or physical removal of the Minister of Agrarian Policy will allow him to avoid legal responsibility, then I can assure you that it is not the case," Leshchenko told CBS News partner network BBC News.
Groszhans' conditions in prison are "relatively okay," and he has been visited at least three times by staff from the U.S. Embassy, Ustimenko said. On January 5, a Ukrainian district court denied a motion to transfer Groszhans to house arrest, his lawyer said. In a statement to CBS News, a State Department official confirmed that the U.S. was "aware of the detention of a U.S. citizen in Ukraine," and said it would "press for fair treatment and due process."
Groszhans' family launched a crowdfunding webpage in November to raise money for his legal defense, but his sister told CBS News on Friday that the family has "no confidence in the legal system. If they can have him arrested, they can have him convicted, and then can have him hurt."
"It is amazing to me that Ukraine is desperate for U.S. military and political support right now and Minister Leshchenko and President Zelenskyy are choosing to cover up their corruption by persecuting an innocent American."
"Anyone who is focusing on words like 'assassination' is being distracted from the real truth," said Magnusson. "This is a cover-up of political corruption."
The Ukrainian court ruled last Thursday that Groszhans must remain in prison until the next scheduled hearing on February 13. Ustimenko said he hoped to receive a transcript from investigators before that hearing of Groszhan's remarks during the restaurant meeting.