The Sauna Files

February 27, 2014 Topic: Ethics Region: Ukraine Blog Brand: Paul Pillar

The Sauna Files

Documents recovered at Yanukovych's estate may reveal new details about contact between the government and a Western law firm.

A sometimes fascinating sideshow to political upheaval has been the sudden opening to public view of material evidence of how those who had been powerful and privileged, but are now fallen, had lived. There was, for example, the shoe collection of Imelda Marcos. Now there is the opulent estate of deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, with its classic car collection, golf course, private zoo, and all the rest. Much of our fascination is basically the same as the titillation afforded by glimpses into the lives of our own rich and famous, of whom any compromise of personal privacy is accomplished not by rebellious mobs crashing through gates but only by paparazzi with long-range lenses.

Potentially more substantive revelations, which sometimes accompany the exposure of lavish lifestyles and sometimes don't, come from gate-crashing political action that provides access to troves of documents. One of the best-known instances in modern times, which had nothing to do with lavish living, was the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979. Officials at the embassy did their best to destroy documents as their compound was about to be overrun but were only partly successful. Some documents were seized intact. Others had been put through a shredder but were compromised anyway when Iranians laboriously pieced together the strips of paper. The Iranians published many of both types.

Now a large number of documents that also escaped hurried attempts at destruction are coming into the public domain from Yanukovych's compound as well as the also opulent residence of deposed Ukrainian prosecutor general Viktor Pshonka. Most of the documents had been thrown into a boat harbor at Yanukovych's place, some bearing the char marks from an earlier attempt at burning. The oppositionists who control the compound and fished the documents out of the water are posting them online as they are drying out. The discipline and organization the occupiers are displaying leads one to expect processing and exploitation of the documents that will be as comprehensive and detailed as that of the Iranians who put together the strips of shredded paper. The Washington Post's William Booth, who describes himself as an experienced connoisseur of revolutionary sackings, says he has “never experienced a more orderly and polite mob” than the one that took over Yanukovych's compound, noting that he has “seen more unruly gangs at Epcot Center.”

We thus can anticipate a stream of interesting document-backed revelations. One of the intriguing topics comes up in papers that were found in a sauna at Pshonka's estate. They concern the Ukrainian regime's hiring of the big American law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom to prepare a report in 2012 on the government's prosecution of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. The publicly released report served the regime's purpose in exonerating the government from the charge that the prosecution was politically motivated. The report also was very critical of Tymoshenko's conduct in the case, although it found some things wrong in the government's procedures as well. It was not clear, however, whether whatever investigation went into the report was focused so narrowly on the case itself that it was not in a position to find any evidence of politicization in bringing the case in the first place. As Victoria Nuland, the State Department's spokesperson at the time, put it, "our concern is that Skadden Arps lawyers were obviously not going to find political motivation if they weren't looking for it."

One of the papers found in the sauna was a draft of the Skadden report with annotations suggesting that the Ukrainian officials were trying to push the law firm into making the report even more favorable to the government. Whether Skadden—which issued a statement this week saying it had taken on the project on condition that it would be “totally independent”—bowed to any such influence will require further study of the documents.

Maybe the documents about the Skadden report were merely thrown into the sauna during a hasty exodus. But the story becomes more appealing with the possibility that work on the documents was done there as well. What a delightful image: the prosecutor general, perhaps with a couple of his aides, all sitting naked and sweating while poring over the law firm's report to see how it could be made more favorable to them.

There are weightier and more pressing questions concerning the current crisis in Ukraine. But it will be interesting to see what else comes from these documents as the water and the sweat evaporate. We may get an added perspective on Tymoshenko's prosecution. We may also get food for thought and discussion regarding what happens when a foreign government pays a law firm to produce what is supposed to be an objective assessment of the government's own actions.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Bleiglass. CC BY-SA 3.0.