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Key impeachment witness gave 2017 corruption warning about Hunter Biden-tied Ukraine firm

Ex-Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch claimed in 2019 testimony she knew little about Burisma beyond media reports. Her emails show more substantive knowledge.

Updated: December 11, 2020 - 11:38pm

Former U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovich cautioned John McCain's think tank in 2017 not to accept funding from the Ukrainian gas firm that had hired Hunter Biden because State officials considered Burisma Holdings and its founder to be corrupt, according to newly released memos.

During impeachment hearings last year, Yovanovitch, a key witness for Democrats, testified to Congress that she knew little about Burisma beyond what she'd gleaned from her pre-confirmation State Department briefing in summer 2016 and press reports. "It just wasn't a big deal," she declared under oath on Oct. 11, 2019.

Two years earlier, though, she had enough knowledge to warn a McCain Institute official not to become entangled with Burisma.

At the time, Burisma wanted to sponsor a two-week training seminar at the McCain Institute for prosecutors from the very Ukraine Prosecutor General's Office that Yovanovitch's team believed had been bribed to drop corruption investigations against the gas firm back in 2014 and 2016.

"There would be raised eyebrows in Kyiv over the irony of Burisma training prosecutors," Yovanovitch wrote in advising a McCain Institute official to avoid taking the Burisma money.

The emails from fall 2017 between the American ambassador and McCain Institute officials — obtained by the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch — are the latest evidence extracted by Freedom of Information Act lawsuits showing Yovanovitch had more extensive contact and knowledge about the controversial Ukrainian gas company than she let on during her impeachment testimony.

Yovanovitch, a respected career diplomat fired by President Trump in 2019, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Memos obtained by Just the News earlier this year show Yovanovitch met directly with an American lawyer working for Burisma in December 2016, received a detailed letter from Burisma's criminal defense attorney and got multiple briefings and emails about the company from her top deputy George Kent, including one suggesting Burisma may have paid a bribe to Ukrainian prosecutors in the form of cheap gas just before its case was settled in late 2016. Burisma was never charged and has always denied wrongdoing.

Yovanovitch even reported the alleged bribe to her superior at the State Department.

Kent also had complained to Yovanovitch that Burisma's Democrat-connected American lobbying firm, Blue Star Strategies, had pressured him in a way he considered "bullying." Yovanovitch herself later met with a lawyer from Blue Star to discuss Burisma, the memos show.

By fall 2017, Yovanovitch was versant enough about Burisma to warn a former ambassadorial colleague working at the McCain Institute named Michael Polt not to accept the Ukrainian firm's money, the newly released memos show.

"I would urge caution in dealing with the Burisma Group," Yovanovitch wrote Polt in response to his Oct. 4, 2017 inquiry. "It is widely believed that the owner was the beneficiary of the corrupt justice system here and I think — to the extent that anyone is aware that Burisma is funding the training — there would be raised eyebrows in Kyiv over the irony of Burisma training prosecutors and to what end."

Polt was acquainted enough with Yovanovitch to refer to her as "Masha," her nickname, in making his inquiry. He relayed to the ambassador that the Burisma funding offer to the McCain Institute had come from the same Blue Star Strategies firm that had clashed with Kent and met with Yovanovitch a year earlier.

"Sally Painter of Blue Star Strategies, whom Kurt introduced to me and then stepped aside, together with Vadym Poharskyi of the Burisma Group have asked us whether we could provide a two-week Leadership Development and Professional Capacity Building program for Ukrainian public prosecutors proposed to us by the Ukrainian Chief Prosecutor," Polt wrote. "Burisma would fund this. We are prepared to do this, as we have done for similar groups from the DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo] and from Pakistan. I would greatly appreciate your view if you know Burisma and/or Vadym or others."

Yovanovitch's warning persuaded the McCain Institute to reject the funding, according to a follow-up email from Polt on Nov. 7, 2017.

"Based on your sage advice and also my good friend, Ambassador Clint Williamson, I am not moving forward with this," Polt wrote. "I would, however, welcome any and all input from you and your team on any good leadership related projects we might take on with your host."

Yovanovitch would have at least one more encounter with Burisma and Blue Star in February 2019, when Painter met with her in Kiev to discuss a clean energy project. At the time, Hunter Biden remained on Burisma's board, to which he was first appointed in 2014 while his father Joe Biden was vice president and chief of U.S.-Ukraine policy, a memo shows.

Painter "plans to discuss Blue Star efforts such as a conference on green energy investment in developing countries such as Ukraine, and a disinformation event to be held in Kharkiv," a briefing memo prepared for Yovanovitch said. "… Separately, Painter also plans to meet with FCS Senior Officer Martin Claessens regarding the Burisma Group energy company and the SelectUSA program."

Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., who led Republican efforts to defend the president during impeachment proceedings, said the evidence that has emerged since the hearings raise questions about Yovanovitch’s testimony. 

“If prosecutors indicted Roger Stone for lying to Congress, they should be taking a long, hard look at Yovanovitch’s testimony,” he said.

Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch, said the new memos call into question Yovanovitch's portrayal of her dealings with and knowledge of Burisma.

"Marie Yovanovitch knew much more about Burisma than what she revealed in her testimony at the sham impeachment hearings," Fitton said. "Judicial Watch will continue its efforts to unearth the shady details in the Burisma-Biden scandal that is not going to go away."

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