After the first round of Ukraine's presidential election a few weeks ago, a group of Democratic former congressmen observing the vote declared that it was basically free and fair and "geared toward the finest methods of ensuring fairness and accuracy."
Their positive assessment ran counter to those of most other observers, including the State Department, a group affiliated with the Republican Party and a coalition of European monitors, who all cited widespread irregularities and called it "a step backwards."
What the congressional group did not say was that its members were recruited and paid $500 a day by a Washington-based lobbyist who is a registered representative of the pro-Russian candidate in the race, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. The prime minister and the chief opposition candidate, former prime minister Viktor Yushchenko, each received 39 percent of the vote on Oct. 31 and will face each other in a runoff tomorrow.
Yanukovych is the clear favorite in Moscow, and Yushchenko is the favorite of European capitals and Washington. The outcome is widely expected to determine whether the strategically located former Soviet bloc nation tilts back toward Russia or turns more toward Western Europe and the United States.
Election monitors are normally unpaid volunteers who get only their expenses paid. Some longtime participants in such delegations are concerned that the Ukraine case and a recent incident involving Cameroon could taint the process of promoting democracy.
The delegation of former lawmakers was led by Robert M. Carr, an 18-year Democratic House veteran from Michigan who is returning with another delegation to observe the runoff.
In the first round, Carr brought former Wisconsin congressmen Peter Barca, Jay Johnson and Jim Moody, as well as Norman D'Amours of New Hampshire, Ronald Coleman of Texas and Mike Ward of Kentucky. Also part of the delegation were Washington political consultants Michael Arno, Bernie Campbell, Richard Pollack and Bernard Whitman, whose company, Whitman Insight Strategies, conducted pre-election polls for a Ukrainian think tank, Carr said.
Carr said members of his delegation were told once they arrived in Kiev that a Ukrainian American was financing the trip, which cost $125,000. He said that, aside from Whitman, none of its 12 members had a business interest in Ukraine or went intending "to develop an interest." Unlike other U.S. election monitors, Carr said, "we didn't go there with our minds made up, and we didn't expect to see it [the first round] run as well as it was."
Moody, the former Wisconsin congressman who now works at the investment-management firm Morgan Stanley, said he did not care who had funded his trip. "The funding did not affect anything I saw," he said. "It seemed to be fair."
The delegation's report was issued in the name of the Alliance for Democracy and Transparency, a Washington-based group set up by Aleksei Kiselev, who is a registered foreign agent representing Yanukovych. Kiselev confirmed during an interview that he had paid for expenses and a stipend of $500 a day for each member.
But he said none of the funds came from the prime minister or the Ukrainian government. He and two other Ukrainian Americans, whom he declined to identify, provided the money, he said.
Kiselev also confirmed Ukrainian news reports that he has spent about $1 million in contracts for five Washington media consultants and public relations firms on behalf of Yanukovych or the Ukrainian government. He said that money also came from himself and the two other Ukrainian Americans.
The contracts went to Venable, Jefferson Waterman International (JWI), DB Communications, White and Case, and Potomac Communications Strategies. Carr said JWI, which is being paid $120,000, handled the delegation's expenses on Kiselev's behalf and chose the political consultants.
Kiselev's filing under the Foreign Agents Registration Act states that he has "an oral contract" to represent the current prime minister and indicates that he himself is not being paid for his services.
His Alliance for Democracy's Web site does not disclose who heads the group or belongs to it. The site describes itself as "a group of U.S. and Ukrainian citizens who are committed to ensuring a balanced and accurate assessment of the 2004 Ukrainian election."
Hundreds of U.S. and European monitors are traveling to Kiev to observe Sunday's runoff, including some funded by the U.S. government through the State Department and the Agency for International Development (USAID). Together, they have dispersed $7.9 million to help Ukrainian and American pro-democracy groups monitor the elections and $13. 7 million for "activities related to the presidential election."
One of the U.S. monitoring groups is the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress, which has sent four delegations to Ukraine since. Those visits were funded by the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation, which received a USAID grant of $143,000. The delegations' reports cited various campaign shortcomings and said the process was weighed heavily in favor of the incumbent prime minister.
The association has publicly distanced itself from Carr's delegation over the funding issue. But the group itself accepted $100,000 from the government of the West African nation of Cameroon to finance a six-person delegation to monitor the October landslide reelection of President Paul Biya.
"This is a very disturbing trend," said Charles Costello, who has worked for 30 years promoting democracy, first at USAID and then at the Carter Center in Georgia. "It raises the risk of compromising important elections that need to be free and fair. The role of international observers could be severely diminished."
Peter Weichlein, executive director of the association of former congressmen, said the Cameroon government paid its delegation's expenses but "no fee, stipend or honorarium" to the members.
He said that the association has no policy on accepting funds from foreign governments, but that he expects the issue to be discussed as a result of the Cameroon and Ukrainian elections.
Kiselev, 34, said he came to the United States in 1991 and became a citizen seven years ago. He said he is a graduate of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and worked for five years in Maine for then-Sen. William S. Cohen (R).
Kiselev's business card identifies him as managing principal of North Atlantic Securities, based in Scarborough, Maine. He said 90 percent of his clients are U.S. citizens. He said he also has a technology company, Eurosoft, with an office in Odessa, Ukraine.
Kiselev said he became involved in the Ukrainian elections because he felt that Washington was supporting the opposition candidate, Yushchenko, and that U.S. monitoring groups were strongly "biased" in his favor. "I'm trying to level the field here," he said.
His role as financier of Carr's delegation came to light somewhat dramatically during a meeting Nov. 10 at the Nixon Center, a Washington think tank. During a discussion of Ukraine's foreign policy, a Ukrainian reporter and another former congressman, Don Ritter (R-Pa.), pressed Carr to disclose who was financing his trip. Ritter had been to Ukraine with the other group of former lawmakers.
Ritter said Carr became "quite upset" when the majority of the 30 people in attendance voted in favor of discussing the funding issue.
"I just thought it was data people should have," Ritter said. "His delegation was funded by an individual who is working as a foreign agent of the Ukraine government."
Carr said he became "a little feisty" at the suggestion that "my opinion is for hire." He added: "They didn't buy my judgment; they bought my time to reach a judgment."
In the end, Carr turned to Kiselev, who told the meeting: "It was my money and that of two other U.S. citizens."
In an e-mail sent last week to former congressmen, Carr solicited members for a new delegation to monitor the runoff election. He said in the note that all expenses would be paid for a five-day trip, including business-class airfare and "the best possible hotel accommodations."
"In addition, a $500.00 per day stipend will be earned," he wrote. He did not mention the source of the funds.
Researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.