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 of Representatives lawmakers on June 22, they 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 participating in a bribery conspiracy in 2013, and has been fighting U.S. demands for his extradition from Austria, where he now lives.
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.
Christina Salzborn, a spokeswoman for the Austrian regional court that is considering the extradition request, told RFE/RL that the slow pace of the proceedings was due in part to a change in the judge overseeing the case.
Firtash was still required to check in with the court regularly, she said, though he was not required to wear any sort of electronic monitoring device.
Asked to comment on the suggestion that the Austrian judiciary had been corrupted by Firtash, she replied: "It's absurd, absolutely absurd. There's no kind of corruption whatsoever. There are a lot of documents, a lot of data, a lot of lawyers involved."
One of Firtash's lead U.S. lawyers, Lanny Davis, criticized the lawmakers' letter, saying it was "100 percent wrong."
"There is not one fact of evidence whatsoever that Dmytro Firtash has been responsible for any corruption either in Ukraine or in Austria," he told RFE/RL.
He said the fact that the Austrian court had rejected the extradition was "embarrassing" to the United States. He also asserted that Firtash's arrest in 2015 was due to political interference on behalf of a top State Department official who oversaw Ukraine policy at the time, Victoria Nuland.
"Since when does the State Department tell a country like Austria to arrest somebody? Nuland had it out for [Ukrainian President Viktor] Yanukovych, and she blamed it on Firtash," he said.
Yanukovych fled Ukraine in March 2014 after months of street protests culminated in violent clashes in Kyiv. Firtash was arrested about two weeks later in Vienna.
The State Department did not respond to an inquiry from RFE/RL seeking comment on the assertion. Nuland is now the undersecretary of state for political affairs.
In a letter provided to RFE/RL, Otto Dietrich, the Austrian lawyer handling the extradition fight in Vienna, said Firtash's original extradition hearing in 2015 was "the only due process that has yet occurred...over all these years of unsubstantiated and false accusations."
"To suggest corruption in Austrian courts, therefore, is not only factually inaccurate -- it is an insult to our judicial system," he wrote.
Firtash was indicted by the United States in June 2013, accused of conspiring with five other people in 2006-10 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.
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.
The hearing to determine whether Firtash can get a new trial has been delayed due to a change of judge and the coronavirus pandemic.
Firtash, who has denied reports of ties to organized crime groups in Russia and elsewhere, built his fortune on deals with Kremlin-controlled natural gas company Gazprom. The tycoon imported Russian energy at below-market prices, earning billions of dollars as he resold it to Ukraine at significantly higher prices, according to a Reuters investigation.
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 Trump in 2020.
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 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 Kremlin-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.