Burisma Holdings’ campaign to clean up its image in the West reached beyond the 2014 hiring of Hunter Biden, son of the then-U.S. vice president, to include other well-connected operatives in Washington, according to officials in both countries and government records.
The Ukrainian company, owned by tycoon Mykola Zlochevsky, also hired a lobbyist with close ties to then-Secretary of State John Kerry, as well as a consulting group founded by top officials in the Clinton administration that specialized in preparing former Soviet-bloc countries to join NATO.
Soon the efforts bore fruit. With the help of a New York-based lawyer, Mr. Zlochevsky’s U.S. consultants argued to Ukrainian prosecutors that criminal cases against the company should be closed because no laws had been broken.
Burisma later became a sponsor of a Washington think tank, the Atlantic Council, whose experts are often cited on energy and security policy in the former Soviet Union.
When President Trump was elected, the company brought a former CIA official from the George W. Bush administration onto its board.
Today, Mr. Zlochevsky splits his time between London, the United Arab Emirates and Monaco, where he has a private yacht, according to acquaintances of his, and sponsors an annual conference on energy policy. Efforts to reach him weren’t successful.
During the crucial years of Mr. Zlochevsky’s image campaign, Vice President Joe Biden was the point man for U.S. and international efforts to combat Ukrainian corruption. Mr. Trump and his allies have called the younger Mr. Biden’s serving on Burisma’s board a corrupt arrangement given the role of his father, who is now a Democratic presidential hopeful in the 2020 election.
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The Bidens deny any impropriety, and there is no evidence to suggest they broke any laws. Hunter Biden has said his acceptance of the seat showed “poor judgment.” A lawyer for Hunter Biden declined to comment.
Mr. Trump pressed the president of Ukraine in a July 25 call to work with his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and Attorney General William Barr to investigate Burisma and the Bidens. That prompted a whistleblower complaint that triggered the impeachment investigation now being pursued by House Democrats, who allege Mr. Trump abused his power to promote his own political prospects. The president has called the phone call “perfect” and the investigation a “witch hunt.”
A native of Kyiv, Mr. Zlochevsky founded his natural gas company in Ukraine in 2002, 11 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, and twice served in top Ukrainian government positions that oversaw the allocation of natural gas licenses—first under President Leonid Kuchma from 2003 to 2005, as chairman of the since-disbanded State Committee for Natural Resources, and later under President Viktor Yanukovych, as ecology and natural resources minister.
He celebrated on his first day as ecology minister by driving a Rolls-Royce to work, according to two people familiar with the episode. A review of Mr. Zlochevksy’s activities by The Wall Street Journal found his oil and gas production business flourished by winning crucial permits while he was in government service.
Burisma has said that all its licenses were issued in accordance with Ukrainian law and that there was no conflict of interest.
Mr. Zlochevsky’s campaign to burnish Burisma’s image typified a common strategy among the newly rich tycoons of the former Soviet Union, who sought to keep their grip on properties they had acquired under questionable circumstances.
Mr. Zlochevsky’s felt his fortunes were threatened in 2014 when violent street protests erupted in Kyiv and Mr. Yanukovych fled to Moscow. Mr. Zlochevsky left, too, fearing retribution against those associated with the former government. But Vadym Pozharsky, his longtime assistant and an adviser to the Burisma board, remained in Kyiv where he worked on building bridges with the West.
In January 2014, Burisma hired as a director the former president of Poland, Alexander Kwasniewski. By April, the company invited Hunter Biden, who was working with a U.S. law firm, to the board, together with one of his business partners, Devon Archer.
Mr. Biden, who was then 44 years old, was paid at least $50,000 a month for his services, one person close to the company said. Mr. Pozharsky shepherded him through company functions and conferences, taking him to tour the city’s cafes and bars, according to three other people familiar with the workings of the company. Mr. Pozharsky didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment. Burisma didn’t respond to emailed questions.
Mr. Biden’s hire gave the company some Western respectability, said a Western businessman familiar with the company, but it was only a small part of a broader effort to win favor in Washington. At the time, the U.S. government and its European allies were pushing for a corruption clampdown in Kyiv.
“Hunter was part of it, but not the linchpin,” this businessman said, adding that the company “never said they had access to Joe Biden or controlled Joe Biden. If they did, they would have bragged about it.”
The month after Mr. Biden joined the board, Burisma hired a lobbyist, David Leiter of Washington lobbying firm M.L. Strategies, to promote the company’s interests in Washington, according to government records. Mr. Leiter was John Kerry’s chief of staff when Mr. Kerry was a U.S. senator from Massachusetts. At the time of Mr. Leiter’s hire, Mr. Kerry was secretary of state in the Obama administration.
According to disclosure records, Mr. Leiter, who also had worked for the Energy Department, lobbied on behalf of Burisma on “promoting transparency and good corporate governances” at both chambers of Congress, the State Department, the Treasury Department, the Energy Department, and U.S. AID. A spokesman for Mr. Kerry declined to comment.
In 2014, investigators in London had frozen $23.5 million of Mr. Zlochevsky’s funds in the U.K. and launched an investigation on suspicion of money laundering. Though the case was later closed with no charges being filed, it spawned separate investigations in Ukraine.
The Ukraine prosecutor’s office had been widely criticized at the time by diplomats and international organizations for being corrupt and ineffective. Overseeing investigations in Ukraine from early 2015 was Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin.
Both the U.S. and European governments were urging his dismissal. Near the end of 2015, Vice President Biden threatened to hold back $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine if the prosecutor wasn’t fired, which he was soon after.
In 2018, Mr. Biden described what happened: “I looked at them and said, ‘I’m leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money.’ […] He got fired.’ ”
Mr. Trump and his allies have cited former Vice President Biden’s remarks as evidence he was seeking to shield Burisma from investigators. A senior Ukrainian government official disputed that last month, saying, “There were a million reasons to get rid of Shokin.”
Mr. Shokin declined to comment. Joe Biden has defended his and his son’s actions, saying last month: “Look, my son did nothing wrong. I did nothing wrong. I carried out the policy of the United States government in rooting out corruption in Ukraine.”
In November 2015, Burisma hired Washington-based consulting firm Blue Star Strategies, which has been lauded in the West for its work to help former Soviet countries prepare for NATO consideration. Its founders: Sally Painter, a senior adviser to the Commerce Department in the Clinton administration, and Karen Tramontano, a deputy chief of staff in the Clinton White House.
At about the time of Mr. Shokin’s dismissal, Blue Star helped Burisma hire lawyer John D. Buretta, who argued before prosecutors in Ukraine that cases against Burisma should be closed, according to one Ukrainian official and others familiar with the matter.
“I thought I was meeting someone who was going to help with the investigations, and all he wanted to talk about was why they should be closed,” said one former Ukrainian prosecutor who met with Mr. Buretta.
Mr. Buretta didn’t respond to questions via email and phone.
The cases against Burisma were closed toward the end of 2016. Ukrainian officials said that decision was made by the new prosecutor general, Yuri Lutsenko. Mr. Lutsenko declined comment.
In Washington, newly released documents show that Ms. Tramontano, Blue Star’s co-founder, used Hunter Biden’s name in a request for a meeting with a State Department official, Catherine Novelli, in 2016 and then mentioned him again during the meeting as part of an effort to improve Burisma’s image in Washington. It isn’t known whether the younger Mr. Biden knew his name was being used by Blue Star.
Ms. Tramontano said she has known and worked with Ms. Novelli for years, and didn’t mention Mr. Biden’s name in order to secure the meeting.
Blue Star also approached the Atlantic Council in 2016 as a possible donor. Fred Kempe, president and chief executive of the council, said the think tank rejected the overture because of Burisma’s outstanding criminal cases in Ukraine.
The Atlantic Council revisited the issue, he said, when Burisma reported that the cases were dismissed. They signed a three-year contract under which Burisma has donated $100,000 a year to the think tank’s Eurasia Center, whose declared mission is to defend Ukraine’s national sovereignty and advocate for economic and political change, including combating corruption.
“We did our own internal due diligence, and were satisfied that we could add them to our roster of supporters,” said Mr. Kempe, who noted that Burisma is one of 17 donors to the center.
In January 2017, Burisma announced that it would be funding a new program with the Atlantic Council on European and international energy security, which it called “a new chapter of cooperation with the United States and Europe together with such a high-profile organization as the Atlantic Council.”
After Mr. Trump became president in 2017, Burisma hired onto its board Joseph Cofer Black, who served as head of the CIA’s counterterrorism center under President George W. Bush. Mr. Black declined to comment. Hunter Biden left the Burisma board in April this year.
—Brody Mullins contributed to this article.
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