There are many Presidents but there is only one KDAC. How Pavlo Vovk became the most notorious judge of the decade

Originally published on Ukrainska Pravda

When one Kyiv judge applied for the new position, he described himself in questionnaire with following features. Namely: independence, impartiality, honesty, friendliness. Would you entrust your destiny to the judge with such qualities?

You shouldn’t hurry with the answer. Because, according to Ukrainian realities, biographies of judges are often the iceberg, most part of which is always hidden behind doors of government offices, lies of press releases and mutual cover-ups of officials.

And if you look at employment record of the judge mentioned at the beginning, his questionnaire will seem like essay built on oxymorons. After all, in recent decades this servant of Themis has become the embodiment of all sins of the Ukrainian judicial system.

And he “honest and impartial” himself in private conversations described his court in completely different words. Namely: “Unliquidated, unreformed, unvalued.

The judge’s name is Pavlo Vovk. And he doesn’t seem to need introduction. The “portfolio” of Kyiv District Administrative Court headed by him has most of the loudest high-profile decisions of recent years.

KDAC cancelled the nationalization of Privatbank and decommunization of Moskovskyi and Vatutin avenues, and banned to perform duties to then head of the Ministry of Health Ulana Suprun.

The court reinstated the number of controversial officials, such as Mykola Golomsha, deputy Prosecutor General Viktor Pshonka, or former head of the SFS Roman Nasirov, who is suspected of corruption.

KDAC suspended the renaming of the UOC of the Moscow Patriarchate and even protected the schoolgirl from the new orthography. All this has made KDAC one of the most famous courts in the country. And attempts to catch Vovk on series that the whole country has been watching for years.

The above-mentioned decisions are “achievements” of recent years. In 2019, the printing press of scandalous decisions significantly intensified. And then the society heard recordings of conversations that judges had in private. Then, words “Kyiv District Administrative Court” became frequently used and widely known.

But this story is not accidental. Its roots and primary reasons are the same iceberg that has been growing for more than 10 years.

Ukrayinska Pravda recalls how Pavlo Vovk appeared in the judiciary, how he made career and influence, and how he escaped the wrath of law enforcement officers and Presidents in different years.

Vovk from excellent student to gunman of Kivalov

Pavlo Zontov, formerly known as future judge, was born 42 years ago in Kramatorsk, Donetsk region. In 1995, he went to Kharkiv National Law Academy named after Yaroslav Mudryi.

During his studies he married and took the well-known last name of his wife Svitlana Vovk. The head of KDAC himself explained this unusual step for men in Ukraine saying that his native last name seemed to him “not Ukrainian enough”.

In 2000, Vovk passed all state exams with “excellent mark”, received diploma of the lawyer in the field of judicial and prosecutorial specialization with honors and went to Kyiv. He worked in the Prosecutor General’s Office, first in district, and then in the city. There he worked as investigator and senior assistant to the prosecutor on statistics during 4 years.

In the capital Vovk made acquaintances, which laid foundation for his future high-profile career. Its start can be considered in 2004. Vovk was able to make it, in particular, thanks to his acquaintance with Sergiy Kivalov, the “grey cardinal” of the judicial system during presidency of Viktor Yanukovych.

In different years, Kivalov headed the High Council of Justice (today the High Council of Justice), the Parliamentary Committee on Justice, and worked on Yanukovych’s judicial reform.

His most famous position is within the management of the Central Election Commission during elections in 2004, which were remembered by falsifications in favor of Yanukovych. That head of the CEC even received the nickname – “counter“.

In March of that year, the prosecutor Vovk left civil service, and in August, the CEC, headed by Kivalov, appointed him as deputy of the territorial election commission. At that time Vovk represented interests of Yuriy Zbitnev, who was on the list of suspected in the work with technical candidate.

Next year future judge joined the law firm Rada and immediately received position of deputy general director. The company was then headed and is still headed by woman named Iryna Orekhova. Her then-husband Sergiy Nechyporenko was the head of Shevchenkivskyi Prosecutor General’s Office in Kyiv.

During four convocations of the Verkhovna Rada Orekhova worked as assistant to Member of Parliament Kivalov. In 2012-2016, she was listed as the head of Kivalov’s Ukrainian Maritime Party and still heads its Kyiv branch.

In 2009-2016, Orekhova was also registered as co-founder of the International Humanities University, where Kivalov is the president. Luxurious house on the seashore in Odessa, which was called “Harry Potter’s House” and where inside activists had found portraits of influential “ex-regional” was registered on this educational institution. Kivalov himself denied relation to the house.

Orekhova’s name also appears in leaked documents regarding offshore in the Bahamas, where the woman is among the managers of the firm to which various companies that are connected with Kivalov are registered.

When Pavlo Vovk worked for Orekhova, he also took care of “Kivalov’s” cases. In his judge’s resume, he mentions only one dispute he has led in courts during his entire career as the lawyer. At that time, Vovk defended the Charitable Foundation “Vivat Themis!”, from which the State Property Fund confiscated premises located on Khreshchatyk.

These premises were leased to the Foundation and above-mentioned International Humanities University for 49 years. The price was 100 times lower than the market price.

Then leasees lost the dispute. And when they came to evict them from building in the center of Kyiv, they found in offices CEC documents that confirmed falsifications. It was, in particular, about forms of protocols of territorial election commissions without signatures, but with already stamped seals, Kivalov’s facsimile.

Kivalov himself said that he had nothing to do with “Vivat Themis!”. Yes or no, but Vovk quickly found himself in official service of the “regional”. In 2006, he left Rada (which is the law firm) to the Rada (which is the Parliament) and became assistant to Kivalov.

Vovk’s career developed quickly. He did not work for a long time as assistant to MP. Having 4 years of prosecutorial experience behind, 2 years of attorney’s experience and one year of experience as assistant in the Parliament, he decided to be the judge. And 3 years later he headed the court. 

Association with “gray cardinal” will be something to reckon with the biography of Vovk. During two years of work in the judiciary, in 2009, he became member of the High Qualification Commission of Judges, which selects and examines servants of Themis. The Verkhovna Rada will vote for this appointment according to the appeal of Kivalov.

In 2010, Vovk defended the graduation thesis of the candidate of sciences in Odessa law academy of the same Kivalov.

How Vovk became the most influential judge

District Administrative Court during presidency of Yushchenko

Vovk wore the mantle in 2007 assigned by decree of the President Viktor Yushchenko. At the same time he immediately got to the “unreformed, unappreciated” court.

The system of administrative courts that resolve disputes with authorities was comparable “novelty” for Ukraine at that time. It was only first years of their existence. Vovk’s court was opened in the same 2007.

But “newcomers” in the judiciary quickly burst into political scandals. The peculiarity of Kyiv District Administrative Court, as it has been and still remains, in its location. The capital falls under jurisdiction of the KDAC. So that means not main authorities are not only of Kyiv, but of the country as a whole.

Thus, the Kyiv District Administrative Court became arbitrator in the most high-profile disputes with state bodies. In the same 2007, the fight against this arbitrator began. And even then at the highest level.

At this time, new shoots of influence of another “gray cardinal” of the judiciary are thrusting in the attitude of KDAC, namely Andriy Portnov. In future influential official of “regionals” in the field of law enforcement. At that time, Member of Parliament from Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc.

By the way, appeal to appoint Vovk as judge was made by the High Council of Justice, which at that time was headed by Lidiya Izovitova, close to Andriy Portnov and pro-Russian politician Viktor Medvedchuk.

And recommendation for appointment was given by the qualification commission within the Supreme Administrative Court under leadership of Oleksander Pasenyuk who during presidency of Yanukovych would receive place in the highest court, namely Constitutional Court.

First scandals and new court were connected with Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc, where Portnov worked during the formation of judge Vovk.

In 2007, the CEC refused to register candidates form the Bloc to the parliamentary elections. And then the KDAC defended members of Tymoshenko’s party, and ordered to reconsider lists and allow politicians to take part in elections.

One year later, District Administrative Court made the strike at the president’s will several times. At first, the KDAC got involved in the conflict with the State Property Fund regarding influence over which Yushchenko and the Prime Minister Tymoshenko fought.

The judge Volodymyr Keleberda not only took side of the latter, but directly opened the door to the Foundation to Andriy Portnov. He was supposed to replace the head of department, but the presidential decree became an obstacle.

In fall 2008, Keleberda’s name irritated Bankova again. After Yushchenko’s decision to disband the Parliament before time, the judge suspended his decree. The initiator was the same Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc on whose behalf Portnov’s partner MP Volodymyr Pylypenko spoke.

Although the fate of the presidential decree should be decided by the Constitutional Court, as Tymoshenko herself stated earlier. KDAC did not hesitate to take this case.

Yushchenko’s reaction did not have to wait long. At first he decided to get rid of Keleberda by deleting him from old decree on appointment.

And in few days the President tried for the first time to put the end to existence of too influential department. Yushchenko liquidated District Administrative Court and created two separate ones instead. Namely: the Central and the Left Bank.

However, both presidential revenges were quickly stopped in courts, about which boasted Andriy Portnov. Neither Keleberda, against whom the criminal proceeding was opened, nor entire court was destined to disappear from Ukrainian history.

This was the first time when KDAC had escaped liquidation.

Vovk is for Yanukovych and against the Maydan

When Viktor Yanukovych came to power, Vovk reaped the fruits of his work and climbed the career ladder.

In 2010, he received the position of the head of KDAC.

During one year the High Qualification Commission of Judges began to collect documents regarding appointment of Vovk to the position of judge for life. Although, according to current Constitution, this was possible only after 5 years of work in court, and Vovk had only 4 years.

But already in October, at lightning speed for the Parliament, the Verkhovna Rada voted ahead of schedule for lifelong mantle for Vovk.

When he headed the court, he rapidly began to increase his influence. During presidency of Yanukovych, candidates for positions of judges in addition to official procedure were interviewed on Bankova. Candidates to KDAC, according to rumors, also had to talk to Pavlo Vovk.

The judge quickly began to justify authorities’ trust. In June 2010, KDAC cancelled the decision of the National Council on Television and Radio Broadcasting to allocate free frequencies TVi and Channel 5 according to the appeal of media holding UA.Inter Media Group. 

In July 2012, Berkut fighters forcibly dispersed protesters of the so-called “language Maydan” who had opposed the law on language of Kivalov-Kolesnichenko. The reason for dispersal was decision of KDAC.

In November 2012, judge of KDAC Oleksiy Ogurtsov canceled the accrual in the amount of 2 million UAH of taxes for the firm from the orbit of companies to which the state residence Mezhyhirya was appropriated by Viktor Yanukovych.

And the first decision to ban Maydan was made by KDAC. On November 21, 2013, the judge Viktor Danylyshyn, who was close to Vovk, forbade Ukrainians to gather on Maydan, Khreshchatyk, and European Square.

In 10 days, his colleague Bogdan Sanin would make similar decision and ban rallies from December 1 to December 7. Later, he will correct the “mistake” in decision and extend the ban until January 7.

This happened after armed security forces dispersed protesters. And it was during Sanin’s banned period that the opposition announced mass indefinite rallies that took hundreds of thousands of people to streets. These were first mass protests.

On December 9, Vovk’s deputy Yevgen Ablov ordered the security forces to disperse the Maydan. Perhaps as reward for this decision was that in less than one month he received corporate apartment for full ownership. The head of court helped him in this. Later, Ablov privatized and sold the apartment for 9.1 million UAH.

Vovk and Poroshenko’s judicial reform

After escape of Yanukovych and election of Petro Poroshenko as the President, Vovk quickly found agreement with the new government.

In June 2014, he along with other top officials received award weapon from the Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov. In 2017, the panel of judges of KDAC headed by Yevgen Ablov had recognized the procedure on procurement of “Avakov’s backpacks” legal. This decision helped to “bury” the criminal case of the NABU on embezzlement of 14 million UAH of state funds during this procurement.

In May 2016, “Schemes” recorded secret meeting between Vovk and Member of Parliament Oleksandr Granovskyi, unofficial curator of judicial and law enforcement systems.

In November 2016, the competition to the Supreme Court started. This is the first project within Poroshenko’s reform. Vovk sent the appeal to the Administrative Cassation Court, and there were rumors in the court that Vovk would head it.

The High Qualification Commission, which held the competition, began to support him in first stages. Among examiners of the judge was Yuriy Titov, the kum of above-mentioned Sergiy Kivalov.

Then, experts talked about manipulation in the calculation of points. And though head of the HQCJ Sergiy Kozyakov didn’t admit it, he disbanded the board of examiners then.

In April 2017, the Public Integrity Council, which consists of volunteers and checks candidates in the same time, made the conclusion that Vovk did not meet the integrity criteria.

In May 2017, the NABU came with searches to KDAC and Vovk’s house near Kyiv. This house was not submitted in the declaration of servant of Themis, because property was registered to his wife.

Officially, she is his ex-wife. Vovk divorced two years before searches. However, investigation stated that the judge still lived with his wife and hid property in the declaration with the help of her. Later, the NABU will have to be close this case when the Constitutional Court cancels punishment for lying in declarations.

The public response caused by investigation of the NABU and public criticism overshadowed the process of selecting judges to the Supreme Court. And Poroshenko had to create picture of successful judicial reform for society and international partners. Finally, Vovk suddenly refused to participate in the competition just before final meeting of the commission regarding his candidacy.

But he was not left without bonuses from the government. Just as suddenly at the end of 2017, Poroshenko changed his mind to liquidate the court headed by Vovk.

The liquidation had to take place as part of reform launched by the fifth President. He has even received consent of the High Council of Justice. Poroshenko was consistent in liquidation of other courts, but KDAC slipped away again.

At the end of 2017, the High Qualification Commission of Judges launched another process within the reform, namely evaluation. It provided for mandatory examination of competence and integrity of all judges. Unsuccessful results or refusal to pass the “exam” meant dismissal.

Chances of Vovk and his colleagues with the train of doubtful decisions were low. They began looking for ways to escape evaluation.

The turn of KDAC’s judges was in 2019. However, evaluation of majority of KDAC’s judges was not conducted. This was made possible due to Vovk’s impunity and informal authority, which turned his court into separate center of influence.

This story became well-known six months after appearance of the so-called “Vovk’s tape-recordings”.

In April 2019, the country was hit by another decision of KDAC, when it had canceled nationalization of Privatbank. It was one of Petro Poroshenko’s largest presidential projects. Thanks to this case, the fifth President was gaining electoral points.

At the same time, KDAC made several minor decisions which forbade Poroshenko to appoint members of the High Council of Justice, judge of the European Court of Human Rights, and heads of tax and customs officials at the end of cadence.

Poroshenko lost the war with Vovk by becoming victim of his own wish to keep the manual court.

Vovk’s tape-recordings“. How they appeared and what they exposed

In early 2019, before the presidential elections District Administrative Court was gaining more and more recognition in wide circles. Cases regarding Ulana Suprun, Privatbank, or Bandera and Shukhevych Avenues have repeatedly turned KDAC into the talk of the whole worldand and personification of judicial arbitrariness.

In summer 2019, there was peak in popularity of both the court and its head Pavlo Vovk, which they tried to tame once again, shortly after change of power..

At that time law enforcement officers within the Prosecutor General’s Office and the National Anti-Corruption Bureau searched the court and prepared suspicions to its owners for interfering in the work of other authorities. It was about the same obstruction to qualification assessment.

The investigation stated that found “organized crime organization in mantles” through completely different case. Owners of these mantles were set up by their loyal attitude to Yanukovych’s regime. Law enforcement officers secretly recorded judges’ conversations when they investigated obstruction of the Maydan. And they revealed new secrets of District Administrative Court.

After searches in 2019, the NABU published first part of tape-recordings, which were quickly called “Vovk’s tape-recordings”. Undoubtedly, they can be called one of the loudest scandals of Ukrainian Themis. And one of the most shameful.

Vovk and his colleagues as well as other civil servants and lawyers are actually discussing “state within state” on tape-recordings. Managed from his own office.

Events developed around the qualification assessment, but the fate of judges did not depend on the commission, but on the contrary. Vovk and Co did not come to the “exam” under the guise of “illness”, and at the same time declared war to their examiners.

Judges artificially created obstacles, interfered in the work of other departments, and used their own contacts to keep the place under the sun. They sent appeals to their own court. And also influenced and agreed with officials who have quotas for formation of the High Qualification Commission.

Exactly one year later, the second part of “tape-recordings” appeared. It was wider and with even more daring phrases. It became clear that, in addition to the qualification commission, head of KDAC influenced on the High Council of Justice, which dismisses, suspends and gives permission to arrest servants of Themis. 

“Vovk’s” rules were established in other courts, in particular, in the Constitutional Court, as well as in the National Agency for Corruption Prevention, which examines declarations.

Attempts to put pressure on journalists and agree with the Ministry of Internal Affairs were also recorded.

Because of all these fact the NABU issued new suspicions to judges regarding seizure of power and creation of criminal organization.

After tape-recordings. Vovk and Zelenskyi

In spring 2019, Vovk launched his own “presidential” campaign. He quickly realized that Poroshenko’s chances to head the country for the second time were illusory. Then, the judge decided to do a favor to future winner Volodymyr Zelenskyi.

On March 26, on the eve of the first round of elections, KDAC cancelled ban to show series “Matchmakers” in Ukraine that was produced by Zelenskyi.

Even before announcement of election results, there were rumors about Zelenskyi’s wish to disband the Verkhovna Rada ahead of schedule and about readiness of District Administrative Court to help to disband the Parliament. The head of court even publicly hinted at this. 

It is known from the NABU audio recordings that in summer 2019 Vovk met the head of Zelenskyi’s office Andriy Bogdan and his deputy Ruslan Ryaboshapko, who was in charge of the court at that time.

The source of UP in law enforcement bodies told that law enforcement agencies that it was Bogdan who had brought Vovk to Bankova after change of power. The judge met informally with Zelenskyi, where he assured new head of state that he would work with him “in one team”.

The PO did not want to jeopardize this cooperation. That is why populist calls to expel “robbers” did not touch KDAC. While scandals with the court were gaining momentum, the President was silent.

At the same time, Ryaboshapko was replaced by Andriy Smyrnov in Zelenskyi’s office. According to UP, today he is responsible for judiciary, in particular, Vovk’s court.

In September 2019, during press marathon Zelensky was asked when he would initiate liquidation of the Achilles’ heel of Ukrainian justice. According to the law, only the President can submit such draft law.

Then, Zelenskyi answered that allegedly he did not know what kind of court it was, and he needed to understand it. However, he assured that if necessary, he would not delay the liquidation. 

This issue was not raised in the Presidential Office until October 2020.

Neither the President nor his Office commented on “Vovk’s tape-recordings”. Zelenskyi’s first judicial reform, which was approved by the Parliament six months after the change of power, and later partially demolished by the Constitutional Court, also did not affect “dangerous” court.

The government made second attempt to launch the reform in 2020. There was no talk about weakening KDAC again.

Meanwhile, anti-corruption bodies tried to continue the fight against Vovk. 

The first investigation based on “tape-recordings” was actually “buried” in late 2019. The terms of investigation were not extended. Then, the prosecutor even decided to prepare materials to the court anyway. However, from the moment when suspects began to get acquainted with them, the case was no longer heard about.

But law enforcement officers did not stop there. Exactly one year after the publication of first “tape-recordings”, the NABU again came to Vovk and Co with suspicion. The “sequel” of judges’ conversations again caused considerable resonance in the media and society.

But the President was silent again. 

The only comment from the PO was that there would be no comment, in fact:

“The President of Ukraine, according to powers conferred on him by the Constitution, has no right or obligation to assess court decisions or charges against courts.… Nor the President can abolish the presumption of innocence against some persons.

The selectivity and special attitude towards KDAC was obvious: both before and after, the Constitution did not prevent Zelenskyi to prophesy prison to Member of Parliament Oleksandr Yurchenko or state that there were “devils” behind scandalous decision of the Constitutional Court.

As long as the President obeyed the Constitution lawfully, District Administrative Court did not sit idly by. For instance, he ordered to delete director of the NABU Artem Sytnyk from registers, in fact, by removing him from position by the decision of the Constitutional Court.

Some of KDAC’s decisions again made the public to recall the “revival” of Andriy Portnov. According to his appeals, for instance, they “froze” celebration of anniversaries of several OUN-UPA heroes or ordered the Ministry of Education to look closely at history textbooks about the role of Berkut members in the Maydan killings.

The decision of “Vovk’s” team attracted attention from abroad: in September 2020, Vovk’s photo appeared on pages of the Financial Times, which is read by world leaders. The British media not only opened the world’s eyes on Ukrainian mafia dressed in mantles, but also criticized Zelenskyi. They wrote that “Vovk’s tape-recordings” emphasize how far the President is from the promise to break the bribery system in the country.

Only when the petition on the president’s website regarding liquidation of KDAC received more than 25,000 votes, they started to act on Bankova. The PO stated that they are starting the liquidation process, in particular, they will consult with the HCJ. 

No one heard about this process again for several months. But in February, the International Monetary Fund decided not to give Ukraine another tranche, by pointing to insufficient progress in reforms. Among other things, requirements of the Fund concerned the judiciary.

And when the IMF embroiled Ukrainian authorities, Zelenskyi finally took a step to fight the scandalous court and registered the first draft law. The President proposed to transfer some part of cases of KDAC to the Supreme Court. 

Moreover, according to the Anti-Corruption Action Center, Zelenskyi’s Office has prepared another draft law. It directly states about liquidation of KDAC, and along with it another similar court responsible for Kyiv region. Instead these two they want to create another new court.

Such reorganization was planned during Poroshenko’s presidency, who had changed his mind at the last moment to liquidate KDAC. Zelenskyi is in no hurry to register this draft law in the Rada.

***

Meanwhile, the NABU continues to investigate the judge, both figuratively and literally. Often they are left alone in this war.

The “Vice-President on Justice” as the Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova called herself, is in no hurry to help detectives. She repeatedly played in silence with investigation and delayed troubles for Vovk and Co.

Vovk himself sarcastically calls anti-corruptionist officials the henchmen“. And such disrespectful intonations, given the long-term unsinkability of political weather vane in the mantle, unfortunately, are difficult to call unfounded. Because against the background of his biography, formed over decades of influence and connections, attempts to put Vovk into the corner already seem hopeless.

But as history shows, this perspective depends significantly on political will of owners of Bankova. Owners, who are tempted to keep the “manual court” for themselves, later become its henchmen.

Sonya Lukashova, Halyna Chyzhyk

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