WASHINGTON -- Congressional lawmakers are ratcheting up the pressure on the White House, demanding more be done to force the extradition of a powerful Ukrainian tycoon from Austria to the United States.
In a letter released by a bipartisan group of House lawmakers on June 22, the lawmakers also suggested that Austria’s judiciary had been corrupted by Dmytro Firtash, one of Ukraine’s wealthiest businessmen.
The demand was the latest development in the long-running and politically charged case involving Firtash, who made a fortune in the murky industry of natural-gas trade between Russia and Ukraine in the 1990s and 2000s.
He was charged by U.S. prosecutors with bribery in 2014, and has been fighting U.S. demands for his extradition from Austria, where he lives much of the time.
In the letter addressed to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Attorney General Merrick Garland, the lawmakers -- Democrats Marcy Kaptur and Mike Quigley and Republicans Brian Fitzpatrick and Andy Harris -- said Austria appeared to be dragging its feet on the U.S. request, and suggested Firtash had corrupted Austria’s judiciary.
“We are concerned that Mr. Firtash has used his considerable wealth and malign influence to subvert that country’s legal system to evade extradition and the rule of law,” the letter said.
The Austrian Justice Ministry did not immediately respond to an e-mail or phone message from RFE/RL seeking comment. Firtash’s U.S. lawyers could not be immediately reached for comment.
The United States accuses Firtash and five other people of conspiring in 2006-2010 to pay at least $18.5 million in bribes to Indian officials to acquire a titanium mine in India. The Ukrainian tycoon allegedly intended to sell part of the output to U.S. aerospace giant Boeing.
He was indicted in June 2013, then arrested in Vienna at the request of the United States in March 2014, less than two weeks after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled Kyiv following months of street protests.
Austria’s Supreme Court in June 2019 upheld Firtash’s extradition but a lower court stayed the decision to give Firtash a chance to submit new evidence that could open the door to a retrial.
Earlier this year, an Austrian court spokeswoman told RFE/RL that the pandemic had hampered the ability of Firtash’s legal team to travel to Ukraine to gather the new evidence, including interviews with people.
Firtash, who has been accused of ties to organized crime groups in Russia and elsewhere, built his fortune on close ties with the Kremlin.
The tycoon imported Russian natural gas at below market prices, earning billions of dollars as he resold it to Ukraine at significantly higher prices.
Firtash was one of several powerful Ukrainian tycoons who used his wealth to back Yanukovych’s 2010 presidential bid.
More recently, he’s been linked to alleged efforts by Rudy Giuliani, the personal lawyer of former U.S. President Donald Trump, to find and publicize information in Ukraine aimed at damaging Joe Biden, who defeated the incumbent in a 2020 election.
Firtash, for his part, has accused the United States of targeting him in an attempt to influence Ukrainian politics.
The lawmakers' letter comes as the Biden administration makes fighting corruption a key pillar of its foreign policy, especially with respect to Ukraine.
The White House has already imposed sanctions on a host of politicians and businessmen around the world since taking power in January, including Ihor Kolomoyskiy, another top Ukrainian tycoon.
However, the administration has also suggested Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was not doing enough to fight against corruption.
In April, a top U.S. State Department official, George Kent, expressed frustration that Ukraine had not done more; and he singled out Firtash, highlighting his much-maligned gas import business.
Last week, Ukraine’s Security and Defense Council imposed financial penalties on Firtash, claiming he sold titanium to Russia for use by its defense industry. The tycoon denies the allegations.
Zelenskiy has yet to sign the measure into law.
Zelenskiy’s relations with the Trump administration have been troubled; in an infamous phone call in July 2019 with Zelenskiy, Trump appeared to condition military aid on Zelenskiy’s opening investigations into Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who had business dealings in Ukraine.
That phone call led to Trump’s first impeachment by Congress in January 2020. The Senate ultimately acquitted him.
Since Biden took office in January, Zelenskiy has been trying to mend fences with, and seek greater support from, Washington, particularly for Ukraine’s ongoing war with Russia-backed fighters in eastern Ukraine.
Zelenskiy recently secured an invitation to visit the White House, in what would be a major victory for the Ukrainian leader; he’s scheduled to travel to Washington sometime this summer.