An Austrian appeals court on Tuesday approved the extradition to the United States of a Ukrainian oligarch with ties to a former senior Trump adviser on corruption charges.
Dmytro Firtash, a billionaire who made a fortune as a middleman in Ukraine’s rough-and-tumble gas industry, has been indicted by U.S. prosecutors for allegedly bribing Indian officials to secure a titanium deal. An extradition request in 2015 had been denied by a Viennese court, which called the U.S. allegations “politically motivated.” A final decision on whether to hand over Firtash to the United States will be made by Austria’s justice minister.
Firtash wielded significant political power in Ukraine under former president Viktor Yanukovych, who was overthrown amid street protests in 2014. Firtash was arrested in Vienna on an FBI warrant just weeks after Yanukovych fled to Russia and was succeeded by a vocally pro-Western government. Firtash’s lawyers say that he is being targeted by the United States as part of a political inquisition against Yanukovych’s former political allies.
“It wasn’t for us to judge whether Mr. Firtash was guilty, but only whether the extradition is allowed,” Judge Leo Levnaic-Iwanski said in the ruling on the U.S. request Tuesday, Bloomberg News reported. “This decision only means that another country will make a decision whether he is guilty.”
Lawyers for Firtash had sought to paint the allegations against Firtash as a strategy to limit Russian influence in Ukraine. The criminal investigation was initiated during the Obama administration.
In a statement, Firtash’s U.S. legal team said it was “disappointed” by the appeals court decision and said he was innocent.
“If and when Mr. Firtash is required to come to the United States, the team will fight to obtain dismissal of this unjust case by the Department of Justice or, if necessary, in U.S. courts, to clear Mr. Firtash's name,” the statement read.
Firtash had previously weighed teaming up with American investors and political strategist Paul Manafort, who for a time managed Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, to buy high-end real estate in the United States, including the famous Drake Hotel in New York.
According to correspondence revealed in a 2011 lawsuit brought against Firtash by former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, Manafort met with Firtash in May, June and August of 2008 to seal the Manhattan real estate deal, according to a memo by Rick Gates, another Trump strategist. Firtash had agreed to put $112 million into buying the Drake Hotel, tearing it down and building a new luxury skyscraper, to be called the Bulgari Tower.
Tymoshenko claimed that Firtash was trying to invest ill-gotten proceeds from gas deals in Ukraine. The lawsuit was thrown out of a U.S. court for lack of evidence. No deals were completed, and Firtash has denied that he invested in the project.
Firtash owned half of a company that negotiated natural gas sales from Russia and Central Asian countries to Ukraine, a lucrative business that Reuters in 2014 reported made him billions of dollars.
In another twist, Firtash was detained shortly after Tuesday’s decision by Austrian police serving a Spanish warrant separate from the extradition ruling. Spain in November sought Firtash’s arrest for charges of money laundering and reported ties to organized crime. It was not immediately clear why the arrest came shortly after the extradition ruling or whether the Spanish extradition request would take precedence.