The Ukrainian Prosecutor Behind the Dossier Targeting Hunter Biden

Andrew E. Kramer and Michael Schwirtz
President Donald Trump meets with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine at a hotel in New York, Sept. 25, 2019. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

KYIV, Ukraine — When the Ukrainian prosecutor Kostiantyn Kulyk compiled a seven-page dossier in English that accused the son of former Vice President Joe Biden of corruption, he helped set off a political firestorm that has led to the impeachment investigation of President Donald Trump.

But even as he was reopening a corruption case related to Hunter Biden’s service on the board of Burisma Holdings, a major Ukrainian gas company, Kulyk himself was under a cloud of suspicion.

He has been indicted three times on corruption charges and accused of bringing politically motivated criminal cases against his opponents. In a Ukrainian security clearance form, Kulyk admitted having ties to a warlord in eastern Ukraine accused of working for the Russian intelligence services.

Yet none of this — including the case related to the Bidens — has seemed to harm the career of Kulyk, who remains a department head in the Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office under a new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

“In Ukraine, a toxic person can keep a job,” said Yuriy Butusov, editor-in-chief of the political news outlet Tsenzor.net. “That’s not a problem.”

Kulyk’s continued presence in the halls of government illustrates the blending of politics and criminal justice in Ukraine, where investigations are routinely used as political weapons or to grease the business interests of wealthy insiders. And the spread of his dossier in Washington shows how these tactics have spilled into American politics.

In a July phone call that is central to the impeachment inquiry, Trump asked Zelenskiy to investigate the Biden case, including supposed conflicts of interest by Biden when he was vice president, and a debunked theory that Ukraine, not Russia, hacked the 2016 presidential election. Zelenskiy agreed, according to White House notes on the call, saying a new prosecutor general “will look into the situation,” though he said later that the new prosecutor would act fairly and independently.

In a statement, the prosecutor general’s office declined to clarify if Kulyk retains control over the Biden case, which is now under an audit that delays any prosecutorial decisions. Kulyk did not respond to requests for an interview.

Kulyk’s dossier did more than revive the Biden case. The seven-page document he compiled and circulated also accused American diplomats of covering up for crimes committed by the Bidens, a spurious theory that played a role in the recall of the American ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch.

A strapping former military prosecutor with a buzz cut, Kulyk pivoted his allegiance to Zelenskiy late in the Ukrainian presidential race last spring, allowing him to continue holding sway over important matters.

Currently, he is pursuing a case against a former central bank governor that could aid a powerful oligarch, Ihor Kolomoisky, a former business partner of Zelenskiy. The case has become entangled in talks with the International Monetary Fund about a $5 billion aid program for Ukraine. Those broke off last month amid concerns about Kolomoisky’s influence on the government. Calls seeking comment from Kolomoisky on a phone number he has used in the past went unanswered.

The Kolomoisky case and Kulyk’s role in it have become a credibility test for Zelenskiy, who swept to office on an anticorruption platform.

“If he doesn’t fire Kulyk it will be a big negative for him, because then no one will believe that he is a reformer,” said Valeria Gontareva, the former central banker involved in the case. “If this country doesn’t get real rule of law then all of our reforms will be easily reversed.”

In March, Kulyk, who with a former prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko, had coordinated with Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to promote the allegations against the Bidens, suddenly switched allegiance in Ukraine’s domestic politics.

He and Lutsenko had been seen as staunch enforcers for President Petro Poroshenko. But two days before the first round of the country’s presidential election — with opinion polls showing Zelenskiy crushing Poroshenko — Kulyk filed criminal corruption charges against dozens of Poroshenko aides. He then went on a television talk show to discuss the highlights of these cases.

An on-air confrontation ensued. Poroshenko rushed to the studio and accused Kulyk of naked political abuse of the justice system. The 11th-hour smear nevertheless reinforced Zelenskiy’s campaign message that the country needed a new leader to root out corruption.

Corruption allegations trailed Kulyk long before his role in the Biden case. In 2016, he was indicted on charges of illegal enrichment, with prosecutors noting that his expensive tastes seemed incongruous with his modest salary as a prosecutor. Court documents describe Kulyk as owning assets equivalent to 1,615 times the minimum cost of living for Ukraine, including two apartments in central Kyiv and a Toyota Land Cruiser that together cost more than four years’ worth of his income.

“In any other country a prosecutor like this would have been fired a long time ago,” said Andrii Savin, a lawyer with Ukraine’s Anticorruption Action Center who has followed Kulyk’s career closely. “But what happened in this country? The prosecutor general promoted him.”

Kulyk has also come under fire for his ties to a man believed to be a Russian intelligence agent in his hometown, Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine.

Kulyk disclosed the friendship in an application for security clearance in 2014 as war broke out between Russia-backed separatists and Ukraine, Kulyk’s former boss in the military prosecutor’s office, Anatoly Matios, told Ukrainian media in 2017.

Kulyk had known the man, Yevhen Zhylin, when Kulyk served in the Kharkiv regional prosecutor’s office and Zhylin ran a martial arts club in the city, called Oplot, or the Stronghold. Oplot was subsequently transformed into a large, Russian-backed paramilitary unit fighting on the separatist side.

Matios told the Ukrainian media that Kulyk had passed the security clearance, but added: “I will tell you something: The moral principles of this person are worthless.”

Investigators who pursued the illegal enrichment case against Kulyk did, however, find the source of one unexplained asset: the Toyota Land Cruiser. It was registered to the father of Zhylin, the commander on the pro-Russian side in the war.

In the middle of his corruption trial, Kulyk was transferred from the military prosecutor’s service to Kyiv, where he became a department head in the prosecutor general office’s international department. (Yovanovitch, then the new American ambassador, was among those who objected to the move.)

It was in this position that Kulyk began digging into Burisma, the gas company where Hunter Biden served on the board.

In an interview published in The Hill in April, Kulyk told the conservative commentator John Solomon that he had been trying to give the United States government what he said was evidence of sweeping wrongdoing by Democrats and American diplomats, but had been blocked by officials in the American Embassy in Kyiv.

The substance of the interview was consistent with the theory laid out in the dossier he compiled in late 2018, according to his former colleagues at the prosecutor’s office. The dossier, which was leaked by a Ukrainian blogger, asserted that Ukrainian prosecutors had evidence that “may attest to the commission of corrupt actions aimed at personal unlawful enrichment by the former Vice President of the United States Joe Biden.”

Lutsenko, the former prosecutor general, said in an interview that he never gave Kulyk’s dossier to Giuliani. But notes taken by Giuliani during their meeting in January, passed to Congress this month by the State Department inspector general, mirror the ideas laid out in Kulyk’s memo.

And in her testimony in the impeachment inquiry on Friday, Yovanovitch, the former ambassador, suggested that Kulyk’s dossier, or its main points, had filtered even higher in the American government. She said her recall from Kyiv last spring was tied to “unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2019 The New York Times Company