KYIV -- A Ukrainian corruption watchdog has changed its position on whether President Petro Poroshenko should have declared ownership of a Spanish seaside villa, raising questions about the state agency's independence from the presidential administration.
Poroshenko's ownership of the multimillion-dollar luxury villa was discovered during an investigation conducted by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. The investigation, published on November 10, also uncovered Spanish properties owned by two of Poroshenko's close political allies.
The revelations raised eyebrows because the properties were not listed in mandatory asset declarations that officials were required to have filed by October 30 as part of a new, International Monetary Fund-backed push to promote transparency in Ukraine.
While Poroshenko's administration argued that the president did not need to declare the villa because he declared ownership of the company to which the villa belonged, the government's National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption (NAPC) initially said otherwise.
Deputy NAPC head Ruslan Radetskyy originally told RFE/RL in the course of its investigation that, by law, a public official submitting a declaration "must specify all property that belongs to him, through a company or as an individual."
But in response to a follow-up inquiry, Radetskyy wrote in an English-language e-mail to RFE/RL on November 21 that: "As long as Petro Poroshenko and members of his family do not use the property mentioned to gain profit, and the legal entity owning this property disposes of the latter on its own, this property is not a subject for e-declaration, in accordance with the law."
The response came just days after RFE/RL discussed the president's ties to the Spanish villa with Dmytro Shymkiv, a deputy head of Poroshenko's administration, and after RFE/RL had been told by Yarema Dukh, a communications official in the presidential administration, that the NAPC was eagerly awaiting a fresh inquiry about the villa.
"I understand it's something new," Dukh wrote to RFE/RL regarding the president's use of the villa and the e-declaration requirements, adding that the NAPC "reached me asking whether [somebody from RFE/RL] is still on the story."
Direct contact between the two offices regarding the ownership of the villa was something that Oleksandra Drik, president of the Kyiv-based Civic Lustration Committee, an NGO that monitors anticorruption reforms, says should not have occurred.
"Definitely there is influence [on the NAPC] from the administration of the president," Drik told RFE/RL. "I can see from what they say, from how they act and how they react to certain facts, that they are not independent," she added, referring to members of the NAPC.
Radetskyy's latest interpretation of the e-declaration law is also open to question. Dmytro Kotlyar, an anticorruption expert who co-authored the law, told RFE/RL that "Poroshenko should have probably declared the villa, rather than not."
Kotylar also said that Radetskyy's comment suggests that the NAPC had completed an examination of the president's declaration. This, he further suggested, would have been impossible in the short amount of time between RFE/RL's inquiries. Each of the more than 100,000 e-declarations submitted are long and detailed, and require extensive work to be thoroughly vetted.
Moreover, Kotylar continued, the NAPC "can't even do it yet legally," because the legal procedure to conduct declaration checks "has not entered into force." That will occur only once the Justice Ministry officially publishes the registration of the procedure -- and it had not yet done so as of November 28.
Daria Kalenyuk, executive director of the Kyiv-based NGO Anticorruption Action Center, wrote to RFE/RL, saying the NAPC's about-face reveals that "we might have a serious loophole in [the] law which allows officials to hide their luxurious property behind shell corporations and avoid criminal liability."