In a suburb of the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, locals were growing curious in 2019 about why their city council seemed to pave and repave their local roads over and over again. “You won’t believe it,” an author wrote on Kherson Online. but we’re going to repair the roads in the city, and in neighboring Antonovka, again.”
What Kherson and Antonovka citizens didn’t know at the time was that state prosecutors and investigators would soon begin a massive criminal case against the man behind the road construction spree, a local government official named Igor Semenchev.
Newly leaked documents acquired by Forensic News from that investigation show evidence of Semenchev stealing close to one million dollars worth of public money during his time in office, using road repairs as a front for corruption.
Despite the exhaustive state investigation, the Semenchev case never went to trial. According to depo Xepcoh, he was arrested and officially charged in August 2021 on three counts of corruption—bribery, embezzlement, and forging official documents “according to a prior conspiracy”—but was later released on bail. He spent the following fall and winter waiting for his day in court.
But in a bittersweet stroke of luck for Semenchev, Kherson fell under Russian occupation in March, the first large Ukrainian city to come under Russian control. Once Kherson was severed from Ukraine’s central government, the city’s municipal functions, including the local legal system, ground to a halt. Semenchev’s impending trial was put on ice.
Kyiv Independent reported this July that files of the Ukrainian State Investigation Bureau were mysteriously destroyed during the early days of the full-scale invasion: “The case files are linked to several pro-Kremlin politicians, and their alleged destruction prompted speculation that treason or corruption is involved.” It remains unclear whether the Semenchev case files were also purged.
Semenchev is also considered to be one of the “pro-Kremlin politicians” who collaborated with Russian forces in Kherson after they took control of the city. Suspicions began in mid-March after Semenchev appeared in a video broadcast by the Kremlin-controlled news network Russia Today. He can be seen sitting passively in a group that RT called Kherson’s “new governing body”, made up of several pro-Russian locals and former elected officials who, three days earlier, held a public event in Kherson with Soviet-era flags slung over their shoulders.
According to another Russian news outlet, Meduza, Semenchev later claimed, in a Facebook post, that he had been forced to participate in the infamous RT broadcast, claiming he was “dead set against it” because “I couldn’t betray my soul—my soul is Kherson and Kherson is Ukraine.” Semenchev insisted he’d participated in the broadcast because he’d been arrested and taken by force to the location, without knowing what was happening.
Friends in high places
Portions of the leaked documents show that Igor Semenchev was supported during his political career by veteran local politician Volodymyr Saldo, a man who remains a looming figure in Kherson. Saldo first served in public office in 1998 and later served three terms as the city’s mayor, from 2002 to 2012. He ran again for mayor in 2020 and lost.
Before 2014, Saldo belonged to the Party of the Regions, a pro-Russia political party that gained popularity beginning in 2006 but quickly became obsolete after the annexation of Crimea and the ousting of Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s former President and leader of the party. In the wake of 2014’s political turmoil, Saldo himself abandoned Yanukovych’s Party of Regions and founded his own party, humbly named the Volodymyr Saldo BLOC.
Included in the leaked indictment documents are files that link Saldo and Semenchev to one another, including evidence that Semenchev, as of 2020, was a member of the Volodymyr Saldo BLOC party. Facebook campaign ads uncovered in our investigation also show Igor Semenchev campaigned under the name of, and on behalf of, the party.
A copy of a recommendation letter Saldo wrote for Semenchev is included in the leaked documents Forensic News obtained. In the letter, Saldo glowingly praises the younger politician, calling him “a true patriot of Ukraine.”
Unlike Semenchev, Volodymyr Saldo’s collaboration with Russian occupying forces has been well-documented, despite Semenchev’s claims that Saldo had, like himself, also been arrested and forced to collaborate in the RT broadcast. Saldo was described recently by the New York Times as “the leader put in office by the occupying Russian Army last spring.” The Associated Press reported on September 30th that Saldo flew to Moscow to participate in a Kremlin-hosted event that celebrated the illegal annexation of four new Ukrainian territories, including the Kherson region. Saldo was in attendance to officially represent Russian-controlled Kherson. He was photographed shaking hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the three other newly-installed, pro-Russia Ukrainians who had traveled to Moscow for the celebrations.
While Saldo has remained in the spotlight, there is scant information available about Igor Semenchev’s current whereabouts, the status of the state’s corruption case against him, or his possible continuing collaboration with the Russians.
When asked about whether Semenchev is currently working with the occupying forces, another city council member who escaped Kherson told Forensic News curtly: “I won’t tell.” When asked whether Semenchev was still alive, he responded: “I have no information on that.”
Another person who refused to discuss the Semenchev case was a Ukrainian criminal investigator listed in the leaked documents. After a short phone conversation, the officer requested written questions be sent over Telegram but then did not respond, suggesting that Forensic News ask someone else and that permission from a “senior investigator” was needed before anything further could be discussed.
Forensic News responded with a document in which the officer had been officially listed as one of the senior investigators. Contact was abruptly cut off. The officer blocked the number used to contact them and erased all previously sent messages.
One indication that Semenchev might still be alive and collaborating with Russian forces is the decision by the U.S. Department of the Treasury to add his name to their list of Specially Designated Nationals on September 15 under the heading “Russia-related Designations.”
The source who leaked the indictment documents to Forensic News worked in the law-enforcement system and was close to the case prior to the full-scale invasion.
Since then, sections of the documents were reviewed by a person familiar with the Ukrainian legal system, a Ukrainian citizen from the Kherson region, and a Ukrainian anti-corruption expert, Oksana Huss. All of these individuals confirmed the authenticity of the documents.
The 700-plus pages of the leaked indictment are, in part, a record of the back and forth between investigating police officers and local officials in Kherson who were contacted for assistance in their investigation. Sections begin with a letter from the police, asking for public documents pertaining to the Semenchev case, followed by a response from the respective Kherson official.
One letter, dated July 19, 2021, was sent from the lead police investigator to a Kherson city official, requesting a copy of Semenchev’s signed oath file. It is an important document in Ukrainian society. All government officials are required to sign an oath of allegiance to the citizens of Ukraine before taking office. The Kherson official whom investigators had requested the file from replied three days later, on July 21, that Semenchev’s signed oath was regrettably “missing” and could not be provided to the investigating officer.
Semenchev’s “work book” was, however, shared with investigators, a document that officially recorded his start and end dates in public office. According to the work book, Semenchev was “let go” from his first city council position at the end of 2013 because of “overstepping the bounds of his official authority.” While the short, hand-written entry contains no further details, Kherson Online reported in 2014 that Semenchev had been fired because of “a protocol on corruption that employees of the Kherson Department of Organized Crime Control drew up in the summer of 2013.” The article states that Semenchev was arrested in Moldova in early 2014 while “preparing documents to help himself hide in a European country.”
Semenchev explained in a letter posted to his personal website that his firing was a targeted attack aimed at undermining citizens’ “faith in honest politicians who really respect their voters, activists, Kherson residents, and work for their benefit.”
Despite the ongoing investigation and his being “let go” by the council, by the fall of 2015, Semenchev was back in public office, having been elected back again to the Antonovka city council.
From roads to riches
Between 2017 and 2020, according to the leaked indictment, Semenchev used his position in the council to siphon 29 million UAH of the public budget funds into a network of friendly companies and bank accounts that ultimately led back to him.
In their investigation, Ukrainian police uncovered evidence that “an overestimation of prices for the finished concrete mix and materials” took place under Semenchev’s oversight of the projects. It should be noted that price-gouging and corruption on state road projects have been such a major problem in Ukraine that even Volodymyr Zelenskyy satirized the topic on his tv show Servant of the People. The leaked indictment shows similar schemes used by Semenchev, ones that relied on overcharging for materials and labor and cutting corners during construction, to maximize the stolen spoils.
Investigators found that the roads built under Semenchev were not poured as thickly as they should have been and that the two foundation layers required for such roads were missing entirely. They concluded that large swaths of the city budget had been allocated to cover the labor and materials, but the work was never done and the materials, “purchased” at exorbitant prices, were never used.
The reason for the road spending spree was simple, according to the police. The roadworks had been performed not as a public service, but to personally enrich Igor Semenchev. One source who worked on the case told Forensic News in April that on any given project overseen by Semenchev a whopping 80% of the public funds allotted were stolen, leaving only 20% for the actual roadworks.
The state’s investigation could never have been as thorough as it was without the cooperation of Kherson’s mayor at the time, Ihor Kolykhaev. He was the politician who ran against Saldo in 2020 on the ticket of his own progressive political party—the We Must Live Here party—and won.
Multiple documents in the archive confirm Kolykhaev’s cooperation with the state’s investigation of Semenchev. One example is Kolykhaev’s reply letter, printed on the city’s official stationery and sent on January 18, 2021. It reads: “Based on the results of consideration of your letter . . . I am providing copies of the requested documents, taking into account the Law of Ukraine ‘On the Protection of Personal Data’. Appendices: 9 sheets in 1 note. Sincerely, Mayor Ihor Kolykhaev.”
Kolykhaev cooperated extensively with the investigating officers. Without his assistance, they would have received fewer of the public documents that were locked away in the city’s archives, including the paper trail of the times Semenchev ordered new road renovations. Such documents would become crucial evidence for the state’s case.
One year after he cooperated with investigators, Kolykhaev found himself squarely in the firing line of invading Russian forces. “The city is under attack,” Kolykhaev wrote to citizens in an online post in early March, according to CNN. “Residential buildings and urban facilities are burning.” He reassured local residents by posting: “I am at my office now and my task is to extinguish fires, protect the Ukrainian flag over the city, save your lives, and eliminate the consequences of the shelling of the city as quickly as possible.” He promised to hold the city and keep services functioning “as long as I can.”
Like many of the elected mayors who were running Ukrainian cities before Russian forces took control, Kolykhaev is missing today. In late June one of his coworkers wrote on her Facebook page that Kolykhaev had been kidnapped and taken to an unknown location. “As soon as he got out of the car, he was immediately detained by the armed national guards and, most likely, the FSB,” she claimed in a Facebook post. After a search of his computer and belongings, “Kolykhaev was put on the Z bus and taken away.”
Vladimir Saldo took over his office as the new, Russian-installed mayor of occupied Kherson. In a speech in September, seated next to a Russian flag and under a framed portrait of Vladimir Putin, Saldo announced plans to “hold a referendum on the incorporation of the Kherson region into the Russian Federation.”
In several of Semenchev’s older campaign ads and online videos, Semenchev can be seen walking down the very same newly paved roads the state built its corruption case around, bragging about how they are examples of the positive changes he brought to Antonovka. In one video, filmed for the Volodymyr Saldo BLOC political party and published in 2020 on Facebook, Semenchev calls the party “a team of men of action” while walking toward the camera wearing a navy-blue suit. He says local residents “have seen concrete results of my work in Antonovka,” adding “we have built many new roads. We have installed lighting on all streets. We will make sure the city grows. And together, we will get Kherson in order.”
In another video, from 2019, Semenchev is wearing a dark rain jacket, walking down another newly renovated stretch of road. He says into his phone’s camera “while people in Kherson complain that there are no roads in the city, or that roads are not being repaired or built in the city, I’d like to show you how we are building things in Antonovka.” Semenchev flips his camera around to show the fresh pavement ahead of him and says, “the roads will be good for the people who live here.”
Some experts familiar with Ukraine’s struggle to rid itself of corruption across the political spectrum see the Semenchev case as an example not just of a Ukrainian problem, but of Russia’s long-reach of influence inside the country.
“Russia has a long history of using corruption as a tool of influence with local and national elites in Ukraine,” Mattia Nelles, a German analyst who has been tracking Ukraine’s anti-corruption progress for nearly a decade, told Forensic News in an interview.
“Many of their collaborators in the occupied territories are alleged to have been involved in local corruption schemes to enrich themselves.” Nelles called the charges against Semenchev not a surprise, but “more of a confirmation of a pattern which many local activists and investigators have brought forward before and after the full-scale invasion.”
With all eyes on Kherson as one of the largest cities Ukraine hopes to liberate from the invading Russian forces, it is unclear whether liberating the city would unfreeze the local legal system and, with it, the case against Igor Semenchev. Regardless of who has control of Kherson, there will be plenty of roads and bridges up for public construction, with one side or the other repairing, or merely pretending to repair, the damages of Putin’s war.