How Ukraine’s Presidential Documents Got Online So Fast

February 27, 2014

When Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych fled Kiev, he left a trove of documents at his estate; many were thrown into a large reservoir. Journalists called divers and spent the weekend going over soggy papers in a house they had long been forbidden from entering. With the help of volunteers, more than 20,000 pages are now online.

Before they came to the expansive estate last week, reporters “had only been allowed to the front door to receive cakes on journalism day,” as Drew Sullivan writes for the Global Investigative Journalism Network.

Within hours of the president fleeing this past weekend, anti-Yanukovych activists from the Maidan group occupied his opulent estate, called Mezhyhirya. The images that emerged from that site depict excess, with gilded surfaces and expensive fittings.

Despite feelings of anger toward the former leader and resentment at his lifestyle, his estate hasn’t been ransacked.

From the AP:

“The protesters’ self-defense units were deployed inside the compound to maintain order and prevent any looting or damage to the property. One of them, a middle-aged man, could not hide his anger: ‘Look how he lived, son of a bitch.'”

But it’s possible that the president’s papers could have the most lasting value for Ukraine.

“There were tens of thousands of documents,” Sullivan writes. “Receipts for millions of dollars in cash. Lavish spending on exotic zoo animals and luxury goods. Records of Yanukovich’s sprawling investments. A black list of the local press.”

As The New York Times reports, a “curious” document was found in a sauna that could shed light on work done by the large New York-based law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom for the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice:

“Among the more curious documents to turn up here was a letter translated into Russian from Gregory B. Craig, President Obama’s former White House counsel and a lawyer at Skadden working on the report on the Tymoshenko case, to Paul J. Manafort, a Republican political operative who had advised Mr. Yanukovych going back to 2007. It was found in a box of papers in the sauna. In the letter dated Aug. 24, 2012, Mr. Craig was asking for Mr. Manafort’s assistance in obtaining from the Ukrainian government documents for the report Skadden was preparing on the prosecution of Ms. Tymoshenko. The report concluded that the prosecution was procedurally flawed but not politically motivated, as it is widely believed to have been.”

The Times says that the law firm released a statement Wednesday acknowledging a relationship with Ukraine’s government. The statement stated, “”Skadden agreed to write this report on the express condition that the law firm would be totally independent.”

Revelations from the documents will likely seep out in the weeks to come. And because of an arrangement that seems to have evolved on the fly, many Ukrainian journalists will work from virtually the same set of data. That’s because instead of hoarding papers for their own news agencies, a large and informal group of reporters decided to share the information.

The group also called for help — from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and from the state archives, which sent an expert along with a heat lamp, to help dry out the documents. Volunteers also worked to sift through the papers; some had been destroyed or damaged too badly to save.

Even as one team worked to separate water-logged papers, a separate group was designing and building a website to handle the mass of documents they were saving.

And that’s how the website Yanukovych Leaks was created. Just days after nearly 200 folders of documents had been tossed into the water, images of the papers began appearing on the website.

Dozens of people pitched in, Sullivan says. But he notes reporters Dmytro Gnap of Slidstvo/TV Hromadske, Vlad Lavrov from the Kyiv Post and Oksana Kovalenko from Ukrainska Pravda were the first to arrive and set the tone for collaborating to preserve the records.

Their work began in a boathouse, near what looks to be a small hovercraft. But they needed more space — so they moved into a luxurious guest house, using the space to lay out the salvaged documents.

“The guest mansion was the most closed-up place in Ukraine and maybe all of Eastern Europe,” Lavrov tells Sullivan. “It’s a place where Vladimir Putin was hosted and it’s been turned into an investigative center by journalists and volunteers that are seeking transparency and accountability. Can you imagine? If someone told me that would be the case a week ago, I’d say they are crazy.”

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