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'Gifts, Prizes, Winnings' A Windfall For Ukraine Judges

The family of Judge Pavlo Vovk, who heads the District Administrative Court of Kyiv, received 400,000 hryvnyas in "gifts, prizes and winnings" last year, according to his declaration -- almost twice his salary of about 231,000 hryvnyas.

KYIV -- Some of the judges at Kyiv's District Administrative Court seem to be very lucky or well-liked -- or both.

In their income declarations for 2014 for tax purposes, at least four of the court's judges reported that they or their families received large sums of money in "gifts, prizes, and winnings."

Such windfalls made Judge Olena Sokolova a millionaire last year, at least in hryvnya terms: She declared an income of 1.4 million hryvnyas ($65,000) in 2014, with more than 1 million of that -- 1,055,221 hryvnyas, to be exact -- entered in the "gifts, prizes, and winnings" section of the declaration.

Sokolova's salary was just under 258,000 hryvnyas last year.

Judge Anna Kuzmenko reported 606,159 hryvnyas in "gifts, prizes, and winnings" -- the latter of which could refer to lottery wins, though officials are not obliged to go into details on the declaration. Judge Oleksandr Krotyuk's figure was a more modest 200,000 hryvnyas.

Judge Pavlo Vovk heads the District Administrative Court of Kyiv, which handles cases related to alleged crimes committed by public officials. His family received 400,000 hryvnyas in "gifts, prizes and winnings" last year, according to his declaration -- almost twice his salary of about 231,000 hryvnyas.

Anticorruption activists allege that some judges are using the declarations to launder bribe money -- and that they are getting away with it because the agency that is supposed to verify their declarations does not yet exist. "The declarations we're seeing now, with all those gifts and stuff, are just an attempt to legalize capital acquired in corrupt ways before," says Vitaly Shabunin, head of the Anticorruption Action Center, an NGO.

Christmas Coming Early, And Often

District Administrative Court judges who reported large gifts or winnings denied wrongdoing, but provided few details about the income when asked.

"It was a gift from my father, and it's officially registered," Krotyuk told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, referring to the 200,000 hryvnyas he declared. Krotyuk said his father was a pensioner. The average monthly pension in Ukraine is 1,670 hryvnyas ($79).

In a written comment to RFE/RL, Vovk said that "detailed information about my family's confidential information. Members of my family did not agree to release it."

By law, the tax declarations of all public servants are a matter of public record.

After RFE/RL's initial request for declarations, Vovk offered copies and tried to charge 3.65 hryvnyas per page. He later allowed journalists to come into the court premises to see the declarations of his 48 judges at no cost.

The District Administrative Court of Kyiv is not the only one where judges have reported substantial income from gifts, prizes, or winnings.

Last year, five judges of the High Economic Court of Kyiv became millionaires this way, despite a strict legal limit that Ukraine has on the value of gifts judges and other public officials can accept and declare.

"At any given time a judge can receive a present worth no more than 1,218 hryvnyas, and no more than 2,400 hryvnyas worth per year -- and only if it doesn't come from subordinates, which is forbidden by law," says Oleksandra Drik, an activist and member of Ukraine's civic lustration committee, which is supposed to oversee the dismissal of public officials who held senior positions under former President Viktor Yanukovych.

"So, obviously, law enforcers should get interested in these facts," Drik said. "Why there is no such interest is a big question."

Government Transparency

The pro-Western leaders who came to power after protests over Yanukovych's turn toward Russia pushed him out are trying to tackle deep-seated corruption that has plagued the country and left it vulnerable to Moscow's influence.

But Ukraine does not currently have a government body tasked with systematically checking the declarations of public servants. The one being set up, the Corruption Prevention Agency, is already marred by corruption scandals itself.

Transparency International Ukraine, an anticorruption watchdog, filed a lawsuit on June 11 against the Cabinet of Ministers, accusing it of "cooperating with fake organizations" in the process of setting up a selection committee that is to choose members of the Corruption Prevention Agency.

The watchdog said that as a result of what it called the cabinet's manipulations, the government controls six out of eight members of the selection committee, which is supposed to have an equal number of representatives from various branches of the government and civil society.

Despite the lawsuit and public outrage over the allegations, the committee held its first meeting on June 11. The meeting was supposed to be open to the public, but some media outlets, including RFE/RL, were not allowed to attend it because the cabinet claimed they missed the deadline for accreditation.