Ukraine’s former top prosecutor says he believes he was fired in March 2020 over his refusal to open the Hunter Biden investigation that Rudy Giuliani and former president Donald Trump asked for, and which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's top aide had promised to see opened.
Rouslan Riaboshapka told BuzzFeed News in an interview from Strasbourg, France, on Wednesday that the transcript of a July 22, 2019, phone call between Giuliani and Andriy Yermak, published last week by BuzzFeed News, is evidence that he was ousted for political reasons.
“It reveals an important detail,” Riaboshapka said of the transcript. “Yermak promised Giuliani to open an investigation into Hunter Biden,” the son of President Joe Biden. “I didn’t know about the essence of the call. I didn’t know Yermak promised to help Giuliani.”
Details of the Giuliani–Yermak call were first reported by Time in February. BuzzFeed News published the detailed transcript for the first time. The call was followed three days later by the infamous one held between Trump and Zelensky that would lead to the US president’s first impeachment in the House of Representatives — and subsequent acquittal in the Senate.
“Just let these investigations go forward,” Giuliani pressed Yermak, according to the transcript. “Get someone to investigate this.”
"We'll be ready ... to coordinate, to work and investigate everything, which you listed," Yermak responded. Later in the call, he reiterates his position, saying everything Giuliani is asking for will be “deeply” investigated.
Riaboshapka is the second official to say their firing was influenced by Giuliani’s back-channel Ukraine campaign. In April 2019, Marie Yovanovitch, then the US ambassador to Ukraine, was recalled. She testified during Trump’s first impeachment hearing that Giuliani and several Ukrainian political operatives — most of whom would later be sanctioned by the US for their roles in helping to smear the Bidens — were behind the effort to get her fired.
Her firing, according to reporting by the New York Times, is now a central component in the federal authorities’ investigation into Giuliani, whose New York City apartment and office were searched last week. FBI agents seized electronic devices, which they are now scouring for information related to Giuliani’s business activities in Ukraine and ties to its powerful oligarchs, as well as Yovanovitch’s firing.
Giuliani has denied any wrongdoing.
In response to questions from BuzzFeed News, Zelensky's office said that neither the Ukrainian president nor Yermak exerts pressure on law enforcement agencies.
"Mr. Riaboshapka's statements may be caused by internal political circumstances in Ukraine and have nothing to do with the foreign policy of the state," read the statement from Zelensky's office. "The Office of the President is interested in developing a strong system of independent law enforcement agencies in Ukraine."
Riaboshapka said that his team at the Ukrainian prosecutor's office conducted an audit of all the cases it inherited, including those related to the scandal-plagued Ukrainian gas company Burisma, where Hunter Biden worked. He said prosecutors found no wrongdoing on the part of the president’s son.
“Zelensky asked me several times if there are violations of the law in this case started by [former prosecutor general Yuriy] Lutsenko, violations by Hunter Biden,” Riaboshapka said. “We looked at 15 or 16 cases. We reviewed all of them and didn’t find anything that could be a violation of the law.”
Despite that result, he said, following the July 2019 call with Giuliani, Yermak continued to push him for months to open cases that involved the Bidens.
Riaboshapka said he believes that pressure and Yermak’s vow to Giuliani during the phone call, brought to light in the transcript, shows it was “one of the reasons Zelensky decided to change the prosecutor general.”
Critics at the time were concerned by Riaboshapka's firing. A strong anti-corruption campaigner, he was seen by many as an independent-minded reformist. He was replaced in March 2020 by Iryna Venediktova, a close Zelensky ally and lawyer who had worked on his campaign, raising doubts that she would perform her job independent of the president.
“He wanted someone more loyal to him, who would say yes [to his demands],” Riaboshapka said.
Shortly after Venediktova took over at the prosecutor's office, she approved a criminal investigation into former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko for high treason and abuse of office, based on taped calls between the ex-leader and Biden while he was vice president in 2015 and 2016. The recordings were provided to Venediktova by Ukrainian lawmaker Andriy Derkach, a Giuliani associate whom the US has since sanctioned for election interference and deemed to be a Russian agent. Zelensky also publicly encouraged the investigation.
Biden’s campaign and Poroshenko’s office claimed the recordings were fake. Nevertheless, American right-wing media presented the tapes, as well as the investigation opened by Venediktova, as being related to the probes Trump and Giuliani were after.
Venediktova couldn’t be reached for comment.
While several investigations focused on Poroshenko and the calls remain open, Venediktova told Reuters in January that all probes into Burisma have been closed and there are no plans to reopen them. “Everything that prosecutors could do, they have done,” she said.
Riaboshapka believes the investigations were closed because Biden defeated Trump and Ukraine wants to strengthen its relationship with the US after a tumultuous few years.
“Yermak had good connections with the Trump administration and he thought Trump would win the election. He promised he would deal with problems between the US and Ukraine,” he said. “Now he must fix [the relationship] between them.”