Evelyn Farkas, a former Obama Defense Department official now running for Congress in New York’s 17th Congressional District, can often be found railing against President Trump's efforts to investigate Burisma Holdings from her platforms on cable news and social media.
The analyst-cum-candidate has called Trump's actions "illegal," brushed off concerns about money laundering at the Ukrainian energy giant ("nothing to see there"), and argued that scrutiny of Hunter Biden's work for Burisma just ends up "helping Russia."
Left unmentioned in her public statements is that Farkas was an integral part of a muscular effort by Burisma to rehabilitate its reputation both in the United States and abroad. As a part of that effort, Farkas traveled to Ukraine on Burisma's dime and spoke at an Atlantic Council conference bankrolled by the energy company in 2018.
At the time of her trip, Farkas was a nonresident senior fellow specializing in Ukraine policy at the Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C., think tank that has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding from Burisma for its Eurasia programming.
The conference attracted a spate of local news coverage that broadcast the fact that "American diplomats" were visiting Burisma's oil fields. Photos from the trip show Farkas wearing a jacket with a Burisma logo while touring the gas company's facilities in the region.
A spokesman for the Atlantic Council, Alex Kisling, said that as a nonresident senior fellow, "Ms. Farkas participated in Atlantic Council programming related to Ukraine, Russia, and NATO among other issues given her expertise" but that Farkas was not compensated for her work. Kisling initially told the Free Beacon that the Atlantic Council paid for Farkas's travel. Asked why a spokesman for the Atlantic Council was quoted in a Yahoo News article conceding that Burisma "reimbursed [the Atlantic Council for] speaker travel and event costs, which … amounted to around [$50,000 to $70,000] per year," he acknowledged that Burisma had covered the costs.
Farkas's relationship with Burisma—and the Atlantic Council's—reflects the growing influence of foreign money on U.S. think tanks and the American media, experts say. There is a growing concern among scholars and experts that the line between lobbyists and policy analysts is becoming increasingly blurry.
"It is perceived by Ukrainian and other Eastern European politicians and oligarchs as a way to buy influence in D.C. and launder their reputations," Christina Pushaw, an Eastern Europe political consultant and policy specialist, said of the Atlantic Council.
Burisma Holdings and its owner, Ukrainian oligarch Mykola Zlochevsky, have been the subjects of fraud and money laundering investigations in the United Kingdom and Ukraine dating back to 2012. Zlochevsky has been accused of using his businesses to launder millions of dollars in stolen funds from the Ukrainian treasury.
Burisma mounted a massive public relations and lobbying campaign to fight these charges and bolster its reputation in Washington. In 2014, the company appointed then-Vice President Joe Biden's son, Hunter Biden, to a lucrative board position. Burisma also retained Atlantic Council board member Sally Painter, the chief operating officer of Blue Star Strategies, a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm. Painter had served for years alongside Hunter Biden on the board of the liberal Truman National Security Project.
The company has been the focus of intrigue and controversy since the New York Times first reported on the salacious details of Hunter Biden's work for the company in the context of the Trump administration's efforts to spur a Ukrainian investigation into Biden's conduct. The saga ultimately served as the catalyst for the impeachment and subsequent acquittal of President Trump.
The issue has also dogged Joe Biden's presidential campaign. Biden, who was the Obama administration's point man on Ukraine policy while his son was on the board of Burisma, successfully pressured the Ukrainian government into removing its top prosecutor Viktor Shokin in 2016.
While there were credible concerns about Shokin's integrity, his ouster also appeared to benefit Burisma Holdings owner Zlochevsky, the New York Times reported. Shokin had an open investigation into Zlochevsky and was reportedly using it to extract bribes from the oligarch, according to the Times. The prosecutor who replaced Shokin, Yuriy Lutsenko, later closed the investigation.
Farkas frequently discusses Burisma in the U.S. news media, where she is often portrayed as an independent expert on Ukraine.
MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell, for example, introduced her as a "former deputy assistant secretary in defense in Obama administration" in October. Farkas told O'Donnell that the Obama administration had "reformed" Ukraine's oil and gas industry and the Trump administration was attempting to corrupt it again.
"There's, first of all, [Trump] trying to get the dirt on Biden and his son, and basically to use it for his own political purposes. And then there are [Trump's associates] trying to make business deals and basically trying to take the reformed Ukrainian natural gas industry," said Farkas. "It was like the one place where we had success. And it wasn't corrupt anymore. And they're trying to dirty it up again."
Farkas was asked directly if it was inappropriate for Hunter Biden to accept the Burisma position, during a WBUR interview in October.
"Wasn't it more than a little unseemly that the vice president's son was sitting on the board of a company that was run by Mykola Zlochevsky who was under investigation, by foreign governments in fact, for corruption?" asked the host.
"I don't want to split hairs … I don't think it looks okay," Farkas said. "Really, it looks like he was put on the board because his father is vice president and his father understands Eastern Europe."
But she said the fact that the Ukrainian government "dropped the investigation" into Burisma's owner Zlochevsky "leaves the impression that there's nothing to see there. Who knows. Really that's up to the Ukrainian government. Hunter Biden sitting on the board of that company, that doesn't necessarily implicate him in any wrongdoing."
Farkas did not disclose her own connection to Burisma during the interview.
Farkas has also weighed in on the matter on Twitter. She has avoided referring to Burisma by name, instead obliquely referring to it as a "company" that employed Biden's son.
"People! @JoeBiden pressured the Ukrainian prez to fire his corrupt prosecutor general. It was US policy (DOJ, Treasury, we all wanted) not something he did on a whim or to help himself/Obama in elections," she wrote in one tweet. "Unrelated fact: His son was on a board in that country."
"I was in the government and the prosecutor was not investigating Biden's son and we were all urging the prosecutor to be fired because he was absolutely completely corrupt," she wrote on Sept. 20, 2019.
She also claimed Biden's actions were actually damaging to Burisma. "If anything, the company Hunter was on the board of would have had more to fear from a new noncorrupt [prosecutor general]!" she said on Sept. 21, 2019.
The prosecutor who replaced Shokin, Lutsenko, helped negotiate an end to the Burisma investigation in 2017, allowing the company's fugitive owner Zlochevsky to avoid prosecution and reenter the country, according to the New York Times.
Farkas argued that Hunter Biden's Burisma work was mainly controversial because the company was based in Ukraine, rather than France.
"[I]f you substituted the word France for Ukraine, would we have the same outcry? I doubt it. I'm not excusing the son's poor judgement, but this is infuriating, because it's hurting Ukraine and helping Russia," she wrote on Sept. 22, 2019.
She also acknowledged that Hunter Biden's involvement with Burisma was bad optics for his father's campaign. Farkas said she personally avoids doing anything in her professional life that she wouldn't want to see on the front page of the Washington Post.
Farkas, 52, announced her campaign for New York's 17th Congressional District in November after longtime Democratic representative Nita Lowey declined to run for reelection. Farkas, who is facing over a dozen other Democrats in the primary, has billed herself as the candidate who can best protect her constituents from "foreign interference" by the Russian government.
"I campaigned to help elect Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton as our next President. When Russians interfered in that election, I was among the first to sound the alarm and urge Congress to take action," she said on her website. "And I haven’t let up since then."
Farkas's campaign would not comment specifically on the candidate's work for the Atlantic Council and Burisma but said she is no longer with the Atlantic Council.
In 2017, the Atlantic Council partnered with Burisma—over internal and external objections, according to congressional testimony and sources familiar with the discussions—to organize programming on Eastern European energy policy, an agreement that yielded a $100,000 annual windfall for the U.S. think tank.
In testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, said that the Ukrainian anticorruption activist Daria Kaleniuk slammed the Atlantic Council's Ukraine program director, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst, for entering into the Burisma partnership.
Kent himself said that in mid-2016, he intervened to prevent Burisma from cosponsoring events with U.S. government organizations because "Burisma had a poor reputation in the business and I didn't think it was appropriate for the U.S. government to cosponsor something with a company that had a bad reputation."
Burisma first approached the Atlantic Council with a funding offer in 2016, according to the Wall Street Journal, but the think tank allegedly turned it down because the company was still under investigation. After the investigations were closed, in early 2017, the Atlantic Council agreed to partner with Burisma on Eastern European policy programming.
Under the agreement, Burisma provided the Atlantic Council with $100,000 a year and covered the costs of joint conferences and events, according to the Wall Street Journal. Burisma "also reimbursed speaker travel and event costs, which … amounted to around [$50,000 to $70,000] per year," the Atlantic Council told Yahoo News.
Ilya Zaslavskiy, head of research at the Free Russia Foundation, said the Atlantic Council should have been aware that there were still significant concerns about Burisma and its owner Zlochevsky's finances when the think tank took the money, despite the fact that Ukraine and the U.K. had closed their investigations.
"They were no longer under criminal investigations, but there were absolutely explicit questions about Zlochevsky and his money, not long before [the Atlantic Council] took the money," said Zaslavskiy.
Burisma has funded several high-profile Atlantic Council events since 2017, including annual energy-related conferences in Ukraine and Monaco. The 2018 conference was organized by Painter's firm, Blue Star Strategies. Attendees included the head of the U.S.-Ukraine Business Council Morgan Williams, Burisma executive Vadym Pozharkskiy, and former ambassador to Ukraine Herbst.
Farkas spoke on a panel at the conference, flanked by large Burisma signs and a Burisma flag waving in the background.
"Starting in 2014 when I was in the Pentagon, but up to the present moment, we have committed almost a billion [dollars] of assistance to Ukraine in order to help Ukraine with its defense," said Farkas.
Promotional video of the event shows Farkas and a group of "U.S. representatives" touring Burisma's facilities while wearing track jackets with the company's logo on it.
Herbst, the Atlantic Council Ukraine program director and former ambassador, gave a glowing assessment of Burisma's industry work at the event—an indication of what Burisma expected in return for its investment.
"Mining at a deep level requires extremely powerful equipment. And the fact that Burisma Group invested into best-in-class rigs deserves respect. I am impressed with the innovative equipment and highly technological processes here," said Herbst.
More recently, Herbst has appeared on cable news to discuss the impeachment investigations, where his affiliation with Burisma's lobbying operation has not been disclosed.
In a Jan. 15 CNN appearance, Herbst slammed "the false narrative that Joe Biden was doing something corrupt in Ukraine when, in fact, he was fighting corruption."
"That's what this is all about," said Herbst. "And it's very sad. And, of course, it directly contradicts America's great interest in Ukraine."