NEW ORLEANS — Back in June, Oleg Khomenok, a leading Ukrainian journalist, invited me to Kyiv to speak at the 11th annual Ukrainian Investigative Journalism Conference.
He asked me on June 13, while we were both attending an investigative reporting conference in Houston.
Little did either of us know that just over a month later, on July 25, U.S. President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would have a phone call that would trigger only the third impeachment of an American president.
And so, I found myself landing in the capital of Ukraine last Friday, the same day that the House Judiciary Committee approved two articles of impeachment related to Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.
It was a whirlwind trip – I spent 40 total hours in Ukraine, just one more hour than it took to travel there and back to New Orleans. Most of my time in Kyiv was spent at the conference hotel, speaking to rooms packed with journalists, mostly in their 20s and 30s.
I was ostensibly there to inspire them with details of how I’ve uncovered some of the corruption in New Orleans, but I was the one who left inspired.
That’s because they truly put their lives on the line to report the news, as evidenced by the car bomb that killed renowned journalist Pavel Sheremet in 2016.
It took an award-winning documentary by other investigative reporters called “Killing Pavel” to give police enough leads to finally arrest some suspects last week.
And while U.S. newsrooms are shrinking, Ukraine keeps adding independent news outlets, powered by legions of highly motivated journalists. They all seem hell-bent on countering the big TV stations, most of which are owned by oligarchs who use targeted “investigative reporting” to attack their rivals.
These independent journalists’ passion and dedication was on full display at last weekend’s conference. Ukraine’s Regional Press Development Institute started its Investigative Journalism Conference in 2009 with 25 attendees. This year, at #IJC19, they had about 350.
Khomenok is the founder and lead organizer of the conference and is considered the dean of independent investigative reporting in Ukraine. It’s clear the young reporters look up to him, and with good reason. He set a heroic precedent in 2014 during the Revolution of Dignity.
That’s when hundreds of thousands of protesters descended on Maidan, the central square of Kyiv, demanding that Ukraine join the European Union and break free of Russian control. In repeated clashes from November 2013 to February 2014, police fired on the crowds, reportedly killing 130 people before the president, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted from office and forced to flee to Russia.
Khomenok and his team of journalists knew Yanukovych had a ridiculously opulent palace on a lake. They were hot on the disgraced president’s heels when he fled, and they rushed into his abandoned palace. The international media focused on Yanukovych’s pet ostriches, gold-plated golf clubs for his private golf course and a massive replica ship he used as a restaurant.
But Khomenok and his team went straight for the real proof of corruption: thousands of secret financial documents Yanukovych had tried to burn and instead dumped in the lake. Harnessing the power of social media, the journalists got boats and divers, recovered the papers, used hair dryers and saunas to dry them and raced against time to digitize them before the police arrived with warrants.
“It looks like they didn’t have time to burn the documents because paper, especially this stock of paper, burns very hardly; you have to have a lot of efforts to burn it,” Khomenok told me. “And these guys were so dumb, they didn’t realize there was no strait (flowing out of the lake); it was just a lake.”
The journalists worked around the clock to publish all the records online and clearly laid out how Yanukovych’s government had engaged in graft and bribery on a massive scale. You can read their stories and watch a 15-minute documentary about their work at YanukovychLeaks.org.
“Yeah, it's true, Ukraine is a corrupted country, and I think the level of corruption perception was going up the last several years, not because we became more corrupt, but because people became more aware of what was going on and how it happens,” Khomenok said.
Natalia Sedletska was part of Khomenok’s team in 2014, and I joined her on a panel at last weekend’s conference. We talked about protecting anonymous sources while properly verifying their claims and maintaining objectivity.
An anchor and reporter for Radio Free Europe, Sedletska is so good at exposing corruption while protecting her sources that Ukraine’s top prosecutor tried to use the court system to unmask them by seizing her cell phone records in 2018. The European High Court for Human Rights had to step in to force Ukraine’s government to back off.
“The courts are corrupted in the same level as the rest of the society,” Khomenok said. “And only recently, a few months ago, the Supreme Anti-Corruption Court was set up in Ukraine. I’m quite optimistic because this court is independent of any political influence.”
That’s good news because independent investigative journalists continue to have a huge impact on Ukraine when they’re not under threat and attack.
During the most recent presidential elections this past spring, investigative reporters exposed how close associates of then-president Petro Poroshenko smuggled military components from Russia and sold them at a huge mark-up, essentially stealing millions from the military while it was trying to fight Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
“Government couldn’t do nothing to prevent the investigation and prevent the broadcasting,” Khomenok said. “This is a sign, I would say, of the real freedom of speech.”
Voters were so angry when the news got out that they voted Poroshenko out of office this spring, in favor of actor and comedian Volodymyr Zelensky.
Which brings us back to the Trump impeachment. In the weeks leading up to my trip, Louisiana’s junior U.S. senator, John Kennedy, was a leading voice promoting a theory that Ukraine, under Poroshenko, meddled in the 2016 election on behalf of Hillary Clinton.
The theory had been widely debunked by U.S. intelligence agencies and Trump’s own State Department, but Kennedy went on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in the midst of the impeachment inquiry and said he believed Poroshenko’s support for Clinton was tantamount to meddling.
“I think both Russia and Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election,” Kennedy told NBC’s Chuck Todd. “President Poroshenko actively worked for Secretary Clinton.”
I asked Khomenok what he thought of Kennedy’s assertions, which echoed a theory Trump has pushed for years.
“I think this is a kind of tricking or playing with the facts,” Khomenok said, adding that there’s a difference between Poroshenko wanting Clinton to win and an active campaign to interfere in the election.
Kennedy pointed to a Ukrainian court ruling last year that found a Ukrainian lawmaker and journalist had intervened in the 2016 U.S. election by exposing $12 million in secret payments from Ukraine’s pro-Russian party to Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort.
Khomenok said that’s not comparable with the concerted effort by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government to meddle in the 2016 election in support of Trump, a campaign that was confirmed by U.S. intelligence agencies.
“The Ukrainian government didn’t have the goal to interfere in the elections in the States,” Khomenok said.
And what do Ukrainians think of the fact that their country is at the heart of the third impeachment of a U.S. president? Khomenok said it hasn’t gotten a lot of attention.
“A lot of media don’t care about this because the United States is too far,” he said.
Instead, the Ukrainian media have been focused on the recent cease-fire negotiated by Zelensky and Putin for the war in Eastern Ukraine. But Khomenok said impeachment has been a bit of a curiosity for those who do hear about it.
“I think some Ukrainians are really proud of this,” Khomenok said, chuckling.
Georgiy Kasianov, head of the Department of Contemporary History and Politics at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, sees the same kind of attitude among his students and friends.
“I heard one comment from one of my friends, that we should be proud that Ukraine is so corrupt, we even managed to corrupt the Americans,” he said.
I met Kasianov at a loud, crowded restaurant in downtown Kyiv on Saturday night. He’s been a guest professor at U.S. universities and spent significant time in America.
He doesn’t want Trump’s impeachment to tarnish Ukraine’s image any further.
“It’s more of an American issue than a Ukrainian issue,” he said. “It’s something wrong with America, there’s something wrong with what’s going on in the U.S. now.”
He said he doesn’t mean to criticize the U.S., but he’s tired of seeing corruption define his country on the world stage.
“It's not about corrupt Ukrainians; it's about those top officials doing something wrong. So just address them, not the whole Ukraine,” he said. “We are exhausted with corruption in this country, so to know that we managed to corrupt Americans, it’s not the best.”