Ukraine unveils corruption probes into reconstruction schemes

By Dan Peleschuk

KYIV (Reuters) -Ukrainian authorities on Tuesday announced investigations into two lawmakers on suspicion of involvement in attempts to bribe top reconstruction officials, part of a closely watched campaign to stamp out high-level corruption.

Kyiv has stepped up efforts to fight graft as it pursues membership of the European Union and prepares to receive billions of dollars in Western aid to rebuild from Russia’s ongoing full-scale invasion.

The National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) said it had caught one of the lawmakers, a member of parliament’s anti-corruption committee, allegedly offering the country’s first-ever documented bribe in bitcoin.

Investigators also said they suspected another lawmaker of arranging the handover in a Kyiv supermarket parking lot of $150,000 in cash stuffed inside a Chinese decorative box.

Both bribes were allegedly aimed at securing state funds for reconstruction projects and offered to the head of Ukraine’s State Agency for Restoration and Infrastructure Development, who reported the offers, NABU said.

Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for restoration cooperated with investigators to expose the second plot, the agency added.

He also participated in a third investigation unveiled on Tuesday, in which a private developer and the director of a state company allegedly offered a kickback in exchange for permission to build on state land.

Authorities did not name the lawmakers, developer or company director – all of whom were served with official notices of suspicion – or the officials who were offered the bribes.

In a statement on Facebook, the state reconstruction agency said zero tolerance of graft was “a key principle” of its work.

“Our cooperation with law enforcement and anti-corruption agencies was and will be systemic,” it said.

The investigations come just weeks before the EU, which has encouraged Ukraine to boost its fight against sleaze, is expected to decide whether to open membership negotiations with the embattled country.

They also coincide with the 10th anniversary of Ukraine’s pro-democratic Maidan Revolution, which culminated in the toppling of a pro-Russian president and the launch of a reform drive oriented towards closer ties with the EU.

With European Council President Charles Michel in Kyiv on Tuesday, parliament preliminarily approved key anti-corruption legislation that would expand NABU’s staff and strengthen safeguards for the anti-corruption prosecutor.

In an interview with Reuters earlier this year, NABU chief Semen Kryvonos said his agency would prioritise fighting wartime crimes in strategic sectors like defence and reconstruction.

On Tuesday, the agency announced it suspected two high-ranking cyber security officials of embezzlement.

(Reporting by Dan Peleschuk; editing by Nick Macfie and Mark Heinrich)