The crux of Joe Biden’s Ukraine corruption scandal defense rests on his contention that he traveled to Ukraine during his tenure as Vice President to demand that they fire their Prosecutor General, Victor Shokin, or lose $1 billion in aid solely because the United States was concerned that Shokin was corrupt and not because he was investigating Burisma, a company that was employing his son. In a January 2018 appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations, Joe Biden famously boasted about how the Ukrainians acquiesced to his demands.
He said, “I’m telling you, you’re not getting the billion dollars…I’m going to be leaving here in, I think it was about six hours…If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money. Well, son of a bitch. He got fired. And they put in place someone who was solid at the time.”
But the sketchy qualifications and background of that supposedly “solid” new prosecutor—a politician named Yuriy Vitaliyovych Lutsenko—undermine Mr. Biden’s defense. In 2010, Lutsenko was charged with abuse of office and forgery and was later sentenced to four years in jail for embezzlement of some $125,000 from state coffers among other offenses. He served two and a half years in prison and was pardoned in 2013. Some contend that the investigation and his somewhat stiff sentence were politically motivated, but his pardon was on health grounds, not based on any exonerating evidence. Shokin may have been corrupt, but at least he was never charged with a crime.
Lutsenko has no law degree and had no legal experience when he was tapped in May 2016 to replace Shokin as the country’s top prosecutor, based on Biden’s aid ultimatum. Ukraine’s Parliament had to rewrite legislation that required the Prosecutor General to have a law degree in order for him to take up his post. How did he do on the job? Transparency International noted in their year-end 2016 Corruption Perception’s Index that “cases of grand corruption against former president Yanukovych and his cronies are currently stalled due to systemic problems in the judicial system.” In Transparency’s Corruption Perception rankings, Ukraine was ranked #130 the year before Lutsenko took over (with #1 being the world’s least corrupt country) ; they fell a spot to #131 the year after he took over and were mired in 126thplace, just behind the likes of Niger and Gabon, an authoritarian state that’s been run by the corrupt Bongo family since 1967.
Lutsenko reportedly pushed for the ouster of U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch because of her anti-corruption efforts, and he dropped investigations into Burisma started during the Shokin era, as Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi and others have noted. Lutsenko was replaced in 2019 by a prosecutor who was lauded by some as the first honest man to hold the post. He lasted just seven months in office until he was fired in March.
Why should this Ukrainian soap opera matter to Americans? At the very least, Joe Biden has some explaining to do. If the press served as watchdogs rather than guard dogs for the interests of the Democratic Party, they’d press Joe Biden on this matter. Why was firing a prosecutor in Ukraine important enough to inspire him to threaten to withhold U.S. aid? If the point of this ultimatum was nothing more than a desire to see Ukraine fight corruption, why replace the ousted prosecutor with someone whose only experience with the law was serving a prison sentence for embezzling state funds?
I’ve worked at the State Department and at U.S. embassies overseas and have worked on anti-corruption efforts in Africa, the Balkans and elsewhere. An internal matter such as an allegedly corrupt prosecutor might typically rise to the level of a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, or perhaps, for a strategic country, the Department’s Undersecretary for Political Affairs or even the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, but no higher.
There’s something fishy about Biden’s involvement in this affair, which inspired the Democrat’s failed impeachment push, and his explanation for his interest in the matter is clearly dubious. In 2016, the press at least asked Hillary Clinton questions about the Clinton Foundation and how she might guard against foreign interests buying influence through it if she were elected. This time around, the media’s giving Biden a pass, but he should explain his actions in Ukraine and tell the American people whether his son and other family members will continue to profit from overseas interests hoping to curry favor with his administration if he’s elected. We deserve all the facts, because as Biden himself once remarked,“Corruption is a cancer, a cancer that eats away at a citizen’s faith in democracy.”
Dave Seminara is a journalist and former diplomat. He is the author of Footsteps of Federer: A Fan's Pilgrimage Across 7 Swiss Cantons in 10 Acts.