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Ukraine gas company, Burisma, tied to Joe Biden’s son explained

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A Ukrainian gas company called Burisma Holdings is at the center of a complicated scandal involving a whistleblower complaint that’s been linked to President Donald Trump, Ukraine, former Vice President Joe Biden, and his son Hunter Biden.

Here’s what we know about the company and how it’s involved in the back-and-forth between Trump and the Bidens.

Fast facts about Burisma Holdings:

  • Burisma Holdings is among Ukraine’s largest independent natural gas companies.
  • The company was founded in 2002 by Mykola Zlochevsky, an ally of the former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych — the pro-Russia leader who was ousted in 2014 and has lived in exile in Russia ever since.
  • Burisma is owned by the Cyprus-based offshore company Brociti Investments Limited, which records show is owned Zlochevsky, BuzzFeed News reported.
  • Zlochevsky served as Ukraine’s ecology minister under Yanukovych, assuming the role in 2010.
  • Zlochevsky also fled the country not long after Yanukovych went into exile, according to The New York Times, as the office of Ukraine’s prosecutor general opened multiple investigations into him and his businesses — including suspicion of tax evasion and money laundering.

What we know about Hunter Biden’s role at Burisma:

  • In April 2014, Biden’s son Hunter joined the board of Burisma Holdings. Hunter served on the board until early 2019.
  • At the time, a news release from the company said Hunter would be “in charge of the Holdings’ legal unit and will provide support for the Company among international organizations.”
  • Hunter told the New York Times that the news release was not accurate and he was never in charge of the company’s legal affairs.
  • He joined the company about a month after Russia annexed Crimea, a cataclysmic moment that continues to put the US at odds with Russia and is linked to ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine.
  • During his time with Burisma, Hunter reportedly received compensation up to $50,000 a month.
  • From the start, Hunter’s role at Burisma was criticized by ethics watchdogs as a conflict of interest for his father, who was still vice president at the time and heavily focused on pressuring Ukraine to do a better job rooting out corruption. But some ethics watchdogs at the time also said that unless there was clear evidence Hunter got the job to influence US foreign policy then there was no cause for concern.
  • His hiring by Burisma was seen as an attempt by the company to bolster its image and the perception it had strong ties to the US as the world vilified Russia for its annexation of Crimea, the Times reported.
  • Yoshiko M. Herrera, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and an an expert on Russia and Eurasia, told The Washington Post: “I think there is a conflict of interest even if it doesn’t break any laws. It’s a big deal. It’s the vice president, who is the point person of the Obama administration’s policy on Ukraine, and his son is suddenly hired to be a director on the board of Ukraine’s largest private gas producer.”
  • With that said, Hunter has never been accused of wrongdoing regarding his work with Burisma.
  • Hunter also said he only had one brief conversation with his father about Burisma which did not go into substantive details about the deal. Joe Biden has said he learned about his son’s role at the company from news reports.

Here’s why this is now linked to a whistleblower complaint that’s reportedly about Trump and a conversation with Ukraine’s recently elected president:

  • Trump and his attorney Rudy Giuliani have suggested that Biden improperly leveraged his role as vice president to push for the ousting of a man named Viktor Shokin as Ukraine’s top prosecutor in order to help his son avoid getting caught up in corruption investigations.
  • Trump has admitted that in a July call with Ukrainian Volodymyr Zelensky, who was elected in April, that he addressed Biden and his son. That call is reportedly at the heart of a whistleblower complaint from a member of the intelligence community that’s sent shockwaves through Washington and put Trump on the defensive.
  • The central concern is that Trump inappropriately pressured a recently-elected foreign leader to investigate a top political opponent, as the former vice president is currently the frontrunner for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. The transcript of the call and the whistleblower complaint have not been made public (and have been withheld from Congress), so the details are still hazy.
  • Trump has tried to flip the situation around, contending that the real issue is the role Biden played in Ukraine as vice president and keeps pointing to Shokin’s firing and Hunter’s work for Burisma.
  • After Shokin was appointed as Ukraine’s prosecutor general in February 2015, he inherited the investigations into Zlochevsky. He also ultimately launched another probe into the profitable gas licenses that were awarded to Zlochevsky’s companies as he served as a top minister in Yanukovych’s government.
  • But by March 2016, Shokin was ousted. Hundreds of Ukrainians had demonstrated in front of the president’s office calling for Shokin to be booted and the Ukrainian parliament voted to accept his resignation.
  • For months before that, the US and other countries had pressured for Shokin to be ousted because he didn’t make a concerted effort to fight corruption. Biden, who was spearheading the Obama administration’s Ukraine work, was at the center of these efforts, and threatened to withhold $1 billion in loan guarantees from Ukraine if Shokin wasn’t fired.
  • So, it’s true that Biden was among those who pushed for Shokin to be fired as Ukraine’s top prosecutor, but by the time this happened the probe into Burisma was dormant, according to Bloomberg.
  • According to the Times, Ukrainian and American officials have also debated whether Shokin was using the threat of prosecution against Burisma in order to solicit a bribe.
  • Daria Kaleniuk, co-founder of the Ukrainian Anti-Corruption Action Center told The Washington Post, “Shokin was not investigating. He didn’t want to investigate Burisma. Shokin was fired not because he wanted to do that investigation, but quite to the contrary, because he failed that investigation.”
  • Yuriy Lutsenko, Ukraine’s former prosecutor general who left the pst at the end of August, told Bloomberg in an interview in May that neither Biden nor Hunter are the subject of investigations: “I do not want Ukraine to again be the subject of US presidential elections. Hunter Biden did not violate any Ukrainian laws — at least as of now, we do not see any wrongdoing. A company can pay however much it wants to its board.”
  • Lutsenko added: “At the end of the day, Shokin submitted his own resignation.”
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