Thursday, April 25

Senate aide investigated for unofficial actions in Ukraine

A senior Capitol official who has long spoken out on Russian policy is under congressional investigation for his frequent trips to war zones in Ukraine and for supplying what he says were 30,000 dollars in sniper equipment to his army, documents show.

Staffer Kyle Parker is the Senate’s senior adviser to the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, known as the Helsinki Commission. The commission is led by members of Congress and composed of congressional aides. He exercises influence on democracy and security issues and has spoken out in favor of Ukraine.

A confidential report from the commission’s director and general counsel, seen by The New York Times, indicates that the transfer of equipment could make Mr. Parker an unregistered foreign agent. It says Mr. Parker traveled the Ukrainian front lines wearing Ukrainian camouflage clothing and military insignia and hired a Ukrainian official on a U.S. government grant, over the objections of ethics officials and of Congressional Security.

And it raises the possibility that he was “deliberately or unintentionally targeted and exploited by a foreign intelligence service,” citing unspecified “counterintelligence concerns” that should be referred to the FBI.

A representative for Mr. Parker said he had done nothing wrong. He said Mr Parker was the target of a “campaign of retaliation” for making accusations of misconduct against the report’s authors.

The report so troubled the committee’s chairman, Representative Joe Wilson, Republican of South Carolina, that he recommended Mr. Parker’s firing to protect national security, records show. I cited “alleged serious irregular acts involving Ukrainians and other foreign individuals.”

“I urgently recommend that you secure his immediate resignation or termination,” Mr. Wilson, a Ukraine supporter, wrote in a Nov. 1 letter to the committee’s Democratic co-chair, Senator Benjamin L. Cardin. of Maryland. Mr. Parker’s representative said he had not been asked to resign and had no plans to do so.

Mr. Parker remains on the commission pending what three U.S. officials described as a broad investigation into staff conduct, including the accusations in the report and Mr. Parker’s accusations against the commission’s executive director, Steven Schrage, and counsel, Michael Geffroy, who wrote the report.

The investigation is being conducted by an outside law firm, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the ongoing investigation. It’s unclear whether Congress raised concerns with the FBI, as the report recommends.

The misconduct investigation has disrupted the Helsinki Commission at a perilous time for Ukraine and its relationship with Congress. The country has suffered setbacks in its war with Russia and desperately needs more money and weapons. Republicans threaten to block $60 billion in additional aid.

In his letter, Mr Wilson warned that the scandal within the commission could jeopardize “future aid to Ukraine”.

The Helsinki Commission is a key voice for Ukraine, both on Capitol Hill and in Europe. Mr. Parker is one of his longest-serving associates. He is known in foreign policy circles as one of the driving forces behind a 2012 human rights law, the Magnitsky Act, inspired by the death of Russian anti-corruption activist Sergei L. Magnitsky.

The report raises the possibility that Mr. Parker’s vehement support for Ukraine crossed ethical or legal boundaries and that he, a U.S. government employee, might have acted as an agent of Ukraine. Through his representative, Mr. Parker denied this.

Representatives for Mr. Cardin and Mr. Wilson referred questions to the House Employment Counselor’s Office, which did not respond to messages.

Mr. Parker is one of several Americans who flocked to Ukraine after Russia’s invasion in 2022. Some offered money and supplies or fought alongside Ukrainian soldiers. Others were dishonest, incompetent, or preoccupied with infighting.

In conferences, podcasts And social half postsMr Parker said he had visited Ukraine at least seven times since the start of the invasion in February 2022, including in combat zones, describing himself as “the most traveled U.S. official to wartime Ukraine.”

Social media photographs from these trips show him wearing camouflage and the insignia of Ukrainian units. In a picture, he wears a crest of the provincial military administration. In another he wears Ukrainian drone unit camouflage and patch. In another, he claims he is “plotting the liberation” of Luhansk with a Ukrainian official.

A video obtained by The Times shows him cutting up a Russian hat and urinating on it.

“Mr. Parker’s unofficial travel and media posing as a foreign military interlocutor raise additional legal and ethical concerns amid reported Ukrainian military corruption,” the report said.

Mr. Parker’s representative provided written responses to questions on Mr. Parker’s behalf on the condition that he not be identified. He said that “American and Ukrainian security experts” had advised Mr. Parker to wear camouflage near the front and that he had never worn the insignia of the military units he accompanied.

He said the urination was “a personal expression of rage and grief” after witnessing evidence of Russian brutality.

Mr. Parker’s representative said these were not official trips. But Mr. Parker spoke publicly as if that were the case. Some of those who traveled with him said they thought he was on government affairs. The commission published a photograph of him in the besieged city of Kherson.

In an April 2023 lecture at the University of Maine, Mr. Parker said that after the U.S. embassy in Kiev was evacuated ahead of the Russian invasion, he was motivated to go to Ukraine to help to advise American policy makers.

“We have almost no eyes on the ground, no presence,” he said, according to a recording from the Bangor Daily News, which covered the event and provided audio to the Times. “So, you know, I feel like that makes the trip even more important, to be able to say, ‘Hey, this is what I saw.'”

It is not illegal to travel to the Ukrainian front lines, despite State Department Warnings against this.

“I don’t answer to the State Department,” he added. “We are an independent agency.”

He told congressional officials that at least some of his trips were aimed at persuading family he has in Ukraine to leave, according to two U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the investigation. Mr. Parker’s representative said he helped his family evacuate.

Mr. Parker said he drove towards the front lines. U.S. officials rarely go to the front lines, and only with tight security.

William B. Taylor Jr., a former top U.S. envoy to Ukraine, said such expeditions were particularly risky. “If you are part of the government or if you have some propaganda value with the Russians,” he said, “the profits must be very, very high.”

As personnel director when war broke out in 2022, Mr. Parker said the commission was on a “war jog” and was no longer required to follow rules regarding travel reports or contact with officials foreigners, according to the report. Mr. Parker’s representative denied this.

The report said Mr. Parker hired an aide to the Ukrainian parliament as a member of the commission, despite “staff objections over security, ethics and legal issues.”

The report did not name the aide. The Times identified him as Andrii Bondarenko, who said in messages that he was working in an unpaid position for about a month in late 2022.

“The idea was to understand how Congress works,” he said. Mr Bondarenko said he was currently serving in the Ukrainian army.

Mr. Parker’s conference in Maine alarmed the commission.

The report was based on public accounts of the event, during which Mr. Parker described obtaining equipment for Ukrainian snipers.

In the recording, he said a relative in Ukraine gave him $30,000 raised by veterans and volunteers, which he used to buy rangefinders from Amazon and ballistic anemometers from a manufacturer of the Philadelphia area.

He said he delivered them to Kharkiv on Easter weekend 2022 to “guys who are going to go after the snipers at the front.” Shooting fingers are specialized binoculars or monoculars. Anemometers help calculate weather variables to align shots.

The export of such equipment is not necessarily restricted, although the delivery of sophisticated models could be. Mr. Parker said he complied with export laws.

“You never enter Ukraine in wartime with an empty suitcase,” he said.

Aishvarya Kavi, Karoun Demirjian And Rebecca Davis O’Brien reports contributed.