New Culture Secretary John Whittingdale accepted flights from society with links to controversial oligarch

Dmitry Firtash is fighting an extradition request from the FBI

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John Whittingdale, the new Culture Secretary, is facing questions over his judgement after accepting a return flight to Vienna worth £3,000 from an organisation with links to a controversial Ukrainian oligarch currently wanted by the US for alleged corruption.

The Independent can disclose that in March – in the early stages of the pre-election campaign – Mr Whittingdale flew to a conference on Ukraine in the Austrian capital funded by the British Ukrainian Society.

The society has close links to the Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash, who also backed the conference.

Mr Firtash has spent the last year in Vienna, unable to leave while he fought an FBI extradition request to face trial in the US. He was close to ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich and is said to be an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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Dmitry Firtash in court at his extradition hearing in Vienna on 30 April (Getty)

As The Independent revealed last year, Mr Whittingdale has been on numerous trips to Ukraine since 2010, funded by the Firtash-linked British Ukrainian Society. Until last November, Mr Whittingdale was a director of the society.

Although he resigned as a director, his entry in the Register of Members’ Interests shows he has continued to accept travel and accommodation from the society, running up to a value of £4,735 for two trips to Ukraine conferences in Vienna where Mr Firtash was based.

On one, from 2 to 3 March, the register records that the “amount of donation (or estimate of the probable value)” for his return flights alone were worth £3,000. British Airways offers standard-class return trips to Vienna from around £200. Specialist business travel agencies said even a last-minute, flexible return flight on business class would be unlikely to cost more than £2,000, although a seat on a shared private jet might.

Mr Whittingdale and his spokesman declined to comment on why the flights were so expensive and whether they were made by private jet.

 

While he has been – successfully – fighting extradition in Vienna, Mr Firtash has funded an agency aimed at setting up a so-called Marshall Plan for rebuilding Ukraine. Founding members include British Ukrainian Society director and Conservative peer Lord Risby.

Mr Firtash has admitted he has courted the British establishment in order to better his reputation here.

Meanwhile, although Austria recently rejected the US extradition request, Mr Firtash now faces criminal corruption investigations in Ukraine. Mr Firtash’s company, Group DF, has claimed these proceedings are “part of the planned and prolonged campaign for political repression of Group DF and its owner”.

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Labour MP and former shadow Culture Secretary Helen Goodman, who tabled questions about Mr Firtash’s connections with the Conservative Party last year, said: “Mr Whittingdale’s connections with Firtash show extremely bad judgement when it comes to dealing with powerful oligarchs. He will now be encountering many powerful and wealthy individuals in the media world, and I hope he shows better judgement with them.”

Mr Whittingdale and his spokesman at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport declined to comment but the new minister has in the past said that he is in no way influenced by Mr Firtash.

He has stressed that he has had an active interest in Ukrainian affairs for several years and spoken repeatedly on issues as chairman of the British-Ukraine All Party Parliamentary Group

The British Ukrainian Society’s address was an office used in the past by the Firtash Foundation and the billionaire’s Group DF empire. It has received secretarial support from the company and lists Firtash’s former chief executive at DF, Robert Shetler-Jones, as a director.

British Ukrainains staged a demonstration outside the Firtash Foundation’s secretariat in Leeds at the time of the Maidan uprising in protest at what they saw as Mr Firtash’s support for Mr Yanukovich.

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