Foreign Agent: Hunter Biden-tied firm finally admits it lobbied U.S. for controversial oligarch

Belated foreign agent filing ends criminal probe for Blue Star Strategies, but raises new questions about Senate testimony from 2020.
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Hunter Biden, Washington, DC, April 18, 2022
Hunter Biden, Washington, DC, April 18, 2022
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Six years, an impeachment trial and a Senate investigation later, a Democrat firm that helped Hunter Biden's Ukrainian gas client has admitted it worked as a foreign agent lobbying the Obama-Biden administration and that its client was the controversial oligarch Nikolai Zlochevsky.

In the short term, the Foreign Agents Registration Act report that Blue Star Strategies filed last week ends a federal criminal investigation without it facing further penalty, according to the firm's lawyer Peter Kadzik.

But in the long term — as a criminal investigation against Hunter Biden continues — Blue Star's filing is rekindling questions among Senate investigators about meetings that were not disclosed on the FARA report dated May 12 as well as representations made by the firm's partners, Sally Painter and Karen Tramontano, during testimony in 2020.

In that FARA report, Blue Star admitted that under pressure from the Justice Department it was filing as a foreign agent six years after the fact for some meetings it held in 2016 with the State Department about the corruption cases in Ukraine and Great Britain involving Burisma Holdings and its owner Zlochevsky.

Blue Star reported it was paid $60,000 to arrange the meeting, and that its ultimate client was actually Zlochevsky, a former Ukrainian Cabinet minister and owner of Burisma who State Department officials have long held engaged in corruption. (A top State Department official, George Kent, wrote in 2016: "Zlochevsky was viewed as corrupt, not just in Ukraine but by the USG/FBI.")  Zlochevsky has denied wrongdoing, but his firm settled cases in Ukraine in 2016 by paying a large fine.

You can read the firm's FARA filings here:

Hunter Biden joined Zlochevsky's company in 2014 as a board member and consultant, a hiring that stirred years of controversy and led to former President Donald Trump's first impeachment. And when Blue Star was hired to help Burisma overcome the corruption allegations Hunter Biden was looped into the early strategy discussions, emails show.

"Beginning in November 2015 and continuing through the relevant period of 2016, Blue Star Strategies, registrant, was working on behalf of Burisma Holdings Limited (Burisma), a Ukrainian energy company, to further its commercial interests," Blue Star wrote in its new FARA report. "Mr. Zlochevsky was a principal of Burisma at that time. Registrant was asked in 2016 to help schedule meetings with U.S. Government officials so counsel for Mr. Zlochevsky could present an explanation of certain adverse proceedings in the U.K. and Ukraine involving Mr. Zlochevsky." 

The firm said its actions on behalf of Burisma involved arranging two meetings: one in February 2016 with Obama-Biden energy adviser Amos Hochstein and one a month later with then-Undersecretary-of-State Catherine Novelli.

The report, however, did not list other meetings that State Department memos obtained by Just the News under Freedom of Information of Act lawsuits show Blue Star attended on behalf of Burisma.

One of those meetings, State memos showed, occurred in December 2016 when Blue Star met with the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovich, a meeting that was not disclosed until after Trump's January 2020 impeachment trial and did not end up on the FARA filing.

The meeting was confirmed by State memos and testimony Tramontano gave to Sens. Ron Johnson and Chuck Grassley during a 2020 investigation of Hunter Biden's activities. Other documents reviewed by Just the News show Painter or Tramontano had other meetings or calls with Yovanovitch, George Kent (then serving at U.S. Embassy Kiev), Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt, USAID officials and Ambassador Daniel Fried in 2016. None of those were listed on the new FARA filing either.

Kadzik, a lawyer for Blue Star, did not return a call or email seeking comment on the other meetings or the FARA filing. But Kadzik told The Washington Post his clients cooperated with prosecutors and the filing ends a DOJ probe of Blue Star.

"There was no finding of any wrongdoing," Kadzik told the Post. "To respond to the DOJ request, Blue Star Strategies submitted an administrative filing to explain the purpose of meetings that were held."

Investigators for Grassley and Johnson this week were poring over the new FARA filing and comparing the information to past testimony and evidence from the 2020 Senate investigation into Hunter Biden, officials told Just the News.

The acknowledgement that Blue Star was, in fact, lobbying U.S. officials as a foreign agent in 2016 and that Zlochevsky was the firm's client conflicts with testimony that Painter and Tramontano gave during the 2020 Senate probe.

For instance, Painter repeatedly told Senate investigators her client was Burisma, not Zlochevsky, though she knew the oligarch and met him once.

"Did Mr. Zlochevsky have his own, for lack of a better term, legal issues at this time?" she was asked at one point. 

"I don't recall," she answered. "I was working — we were talking with Burisma, and so that was the focus."

The FARA report flatly states that Zlochevsky was the "foreign principal" that Blue Star was primarily assisting when it set up the meetings. 

"The assistance in setting up the 2 meetings was indirectly in the interest of Burisma, but was primarily in the interest of Mr. Zlochevsky," the report said.

Painter also testified her efforts with U.S. officials were not designed to influence. 

"When meeting with U.S. Government officials, did you intend to influence U.S. policy towards Burisma?" she was asked.

Painter answered: "No."

Another time, Painter disputed she was lobbying. "I do not consider them to be lobbying," she answered. "I consider that to be exploring to understand the position of the U.S. government."

Tramontano gave a similar answer. "We didn't lobby the U.S. government," she testified.

But the FARA filing states clearly the goal of the meetings Blue Star set up with U.S. officials was to counter American officials' negative narrative about the Burisma owner.

The report stated for example the goal of the meetings was "to introduce Mr. Zlochevsky's attorney so he could present an explanation of the adverse proceedings in the U.K. and Ukraine involving Mr. Zlochevsky."

In addition, one of the U.S. officials who met with Blue Star, Hochstein, testified he believed the lawyers were trying to influence his position.

"They did not like my answer, and they tried to convince me otherwise," Hochstein told Senate investigators, according to a transcript reviewed by Just the News.

As Senate investigators compare the new FARA report with earlier testimony, another area of interest has emerged, according to interviews.

Tramontano flatly stated she did not coordinate her Burisma work with Hunter Biden.

"I want to assure the Committees' Chairmen that at no time did I or anyone else in the firm working on behalf of Burisma collaborate or coordinate the development or implementation of our work with Hunter Biden," Tramontano wrote in a letter to the senators. "We had no discussions or meetings with Mr. Biden regarding our contractual agreement with Burisma or Blue Star Strategies' terms of engagement. Mr. Biden played no role in Blue Star Strategies' work on behalf of Burisma — either in its limited scope in the U.S. or its more extensive scope in Ukraine."

File

But emails on a Hunter Biden laptop seized by the FBI in December 2019 show Tramontano clearly communicating Burisma strategy to Hunter Biden and his team at his primary business firm, Rosemont Seneca.

For instance, Blue Star directly emailed Hunter Biden and others a memo about a briefing it got at the White House about then-Vice President Joe Biden's trip to Ukraine.

"This morning the White House hosted a conference call regarding the Vice President's upcoming trip to Ukraine. Attached is a memo from the Blue Star Strategies team with the minutes of the call, which outlined the trip's agenda and addressed several questions regarding U.S. policy toward Ukraine," Blue Star wrote. Hunter Biden was the first email listed as a recipient.

A day later, in an email entitled "Call between Blue Star and Burisma," Hunter Biden was invited to join a telephonic meeting.

On Dec. 8, 2015, Painter sent Hunter Biden and Burisma executives a plan on how the firm might go about cleaning up Burisma's reputation by hiring a company to change the Ukrainian company's Wikipedia description.

"This looks like a fine strategy to upgrade and more reflect the facts of the company," Painter wrote, copying Hunter Biden. "We also work with a group called Reputation.com which improves the overall internet image. Happy to discuss this if any interest."

The emails show Hunter Biden endorsed the idea of hiring Blue Star right from the start when the contract was about to be signed in November 2015. "Devon and I do feel comfortable with BS and the ability of Sally & Karen to deliver," Hunter Biden wrote a top Burisma official. "You should go ahead and sign. Looking forward to getting started on this."

Such emails flowed to Hunter Biden and his team for months, often from Blue Star itself.

In March 2016, for instance, when Hunter Biden's longtime business partner and fellow Burisma board member Devon Archer was charged with securities fraud, Tramontano sent an email to Hunter Biden's righthand man Eric Schwerin entitled "Devon story in Ukraine press." It was immediately forwarded to Hunter Biden.

Months later, Tramontano sent an email titled "update" to Schwerin, bragging about progress Blue Star made on behalf of Burisma in settling its corruption cases in Ukraine. It, too, was immediately forwarded to Hunter Biden.

"Most of the restraints on Burisma have been lifted," she wrote. "There's 2 more court hearings. We've pursued a particular strategy after having uncovered two particular problems — No help from our friend(s) however."