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New State memos disclose relentless pressure by Hunter Biden-connected Ukrainian firm

Key Senate chairman vows subpoena after documents provided to Just the News under FOIA, but not Senate investigators.

Updated: August 12, 2020 - 7:47am

The Ukrainian natural gas firm that appointed Vice President Joe Biden's son Hunter to a lucrative board seat relentlessly pressured the State Department throughout the 2016 election in an effort to get corruption allegations against it dropped and its badly damaged reputation rehabilitated, newly released government memos show.

"They keep trying through every channel they can," a State Department official lamented in summer 2016, describing a nonstop lobbying campaign by Burisma Holdings and its American representatives.

The memos, released to Just the News under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit assisted by the Southeastern Foundation, add new significance to a long-running Senate investigation into the Bidens' activities and perceived conflicts of interest in Ukraine.

For instance, they show far more contact between Burisma and the U.S. embassy in Kiev than was acknowledged by witnesses during President Trump's impeachment proceedings earlier this year. One issue in that trial was the more than $3 million Hunter Biden's firm collected from Burisma while his father supervised Ukraine policy for President Obama.

The memos obtained by Just the News also were withheld from Senate investigators, who learned of their existence from the FOIA lawsuit.

"We have been so frustrated in our attempt to get the documentation that we need before we can sit down and interview people, and as I understand it, the documents you just obtained in your FOIA request we haven't received unbelievably," Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson said in an interview with the John Solomon Reports podcast.

"I cannot tell you how frustrated and ticked off, I'll use that word, ticked off about where we are here. So yeah, I subpoenaed the FBI. And, you know, expect additional subpoenas to be forthcoming,” Johnson (R-Wisc.) added.

Asked whether a subpoena to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo might be forthcoming, Johnson answered, "Well, certainly a subpoena would bring it to his attention."

The memos show Burisma's lobbying efforts were led by a Democratic firm called Blue Star Strategies and aided by the nonprofit Atlantic Council foreign policy think tank, stretching from the State Department's executive suite in Washington at the start of the election to the U.S. embassy in Kiev in the waning days of the Obama administration.

Burisma representatives repeatedly pressed for meetings, at times invoking Hunter Biden's name, starting with a Blue Star conversation with then-Undersecretary of State Catherine Novelli in January 2016 before turning their attention to U.S. diplomats on the ground in Kiev, the memos show.

By summer 2016 — their mission to clear Burisma's name still incomplete — Blue Star officials pigeonholed the new U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, during her Senate confirmation hearing and then attended a private reception where she was honored, according to the memos.

State officials at times chafed at the Burisma campaign, concerned Hunter Biden's role at the gas firm was undercutting his father's anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine, according to the memos and interviews.

"We had already offered our regrets to Blue Star. But they keep trying through every channel they can," State Department official Catherine Croft wrote July 29, 2016 in an email to George Kent, one of the department's top officials in the Kiev embassy.

At the time, the U.S. embassy in Kiev was undergoing a transition as outgoing Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt was leaving for a new assignment and being replaced by Yovanovitch.

And Burisma's founder, Mykola Zlochesky, was pressing to get long-running corruption investigations against his company dropped in Ukraine, something that could not happen easily without the tacit approval of the State Department.

Two of Blue Star's highly connected Democratic players, Sally Painter and Karen Tramontano, made repeated overtures to meet with Pyatt and Yovanovitch, as did two former American diplomats, Daniel Fried and John Herbst, who were working at the Atlantic Council, the memos show.

Kent tried to rebuff the late July 2016 meeting request.

"Well, Sally Poynter (he misspelled her name) never did call me after Dan Fried tried to broker it," Kent wrote Croft back about one of the meeting requests. "I think that means he gave her a taste about what I would have said re: Zlochevsky, Burisma and Hunter Biden." For emphasis, Kent added a smiley face to the end of his email.

Kent, now a deputy assistant secretary of state, recently confirmed to Senate investigators that he believed Burisma and Zlochevsky were corrupt and that Hunter Biden's hiring at the firm created the appearance of a conflict of interest for the U.S. government because his father, Joe Biden, oversaw Ukraine policy, officials told Just the News.

State declined the July 2016 meeting after Yovanovitch instructed her staff to be "noncommittal," but Blue Star's efforts simply escalated, the memos show.

A Blue Star official wrote State that Painter, a former Clinton administration lawyer, had pigeonholed Yovanovitch at her July 2016 confirmation hearing in the Senate.

"Sally has worked with Ambassador Yovanovitch in the past and spoke with her at the nomination hearing about getting together before her departure for Ukraine," the Blue Star official wrote. "... Sally would greatly appreciate the chance to brief the Ambassador on a few vital topics regarding Ukraine."

State memos show Blue Star also attended a private reception honoring Yovanovitch in August 2016 before she departed for Kiev.

By early September 2016, Burisma tried a different approach. Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador now working for the Atlantic Council, corresponded with Kent and had dinner to discuss Burisma and other matters, the memos show. Kent would eventually brief Yovanovitch on Herbst's overture.

That same month, an American lawyer representing Burisma, John Buretta, wrote a lengthy letter to Yovanovitch suggesting the corruption accusations against the Ukrainian company were unwarranted and asking U.S. officials to reconsider their views on Hunter Biden's employer.

After Trump unexpectedly won the November 2016 election, Tramontano finally scored a meeting with Yovanovitch on Dec. 8, 2016. A memo describing the meeting was provided to Just the News in a highly redacted form but made clear that Burisma was the subject.

"An Atlantic Council member and Washington veteran, Tramontano informally represents Mykola Zlochevsky, the Burisma CEO, who has long been the target of law enforcement proceedings in Ukraine," the lone sentence left unredacted from the memo states.

By late December 2016, Kent informed Yovanovitch that Burisma had managed to get Ukraine prosecutors to drop all investigations in return for the gas company paying a large tax penalty.

On Jan. 13, 2017, seven days before Trump took office, Kent received a notification from Herbst that his Atlantic Council group had received and accepted a large donation from Burisma, which was now celebrating its success in getting the corruption probes shut down.

"George, I wanted you to know before it becomes public that the Atlantic Council decided to accept support for its program from Burisma," Herbst wrote. "We looked at the matter closely and waited for over a month. Information provided to us by the Cravath lawyer for Burisma in the London case was an important factor, although some uneasiness remains."

Kent forwarded Herbst's email to Yovanovitch as an "FYI," suggesting to the ambassador that the Atlantic Council had simply been part of Blue Star's lobbying campaign for Burisma.

"The Blue Star duo, Karen and Sally, are on the Atlantic Council roster, and are the probable pushers of this," Kent wrote. "John had come to the old DCR on a trip last fall before I moved and talked through the whole Burisma/Zlochevsky nexus. At the time he made no mention of this as a possibility."

Johnson said even before the release of the new memos this week, his committee already had plenty of evidence to show that Joe Biden engaged in a prohibited conflict of interest as vice president by continuing to oversee U.S.-Ukraine policy while his son worked for and was enriched by Burisma.

That appearance issue, Johnson said, was made worse when Joe Biden pressured Ukraine in March 2016 to fire the prosecutor overseeing the Burisma probe. Biden has said he sought the firing because he thought the prosecutor was ineffective and not because of the Burisma probe.

Johnson said media reports suggesting there was no wrongdoing by the Bidens in Ukraine are simply wrong. 

"The public has to be aware of this what I call glaring conflict of interest. The media is covering for Joe Biden. They're part and parcel of the Democratic Party," Johnson said.