Politics and Love

Did Joe and Hunter Biden Act Corruptly in Ukraine?

This post is a part of a series on the impeachment inquiry against President Trump. (You can find links to the first three posts at the bottom of the page.) In this post, I want to explore whether Hunter and Joe Biden acted corruptly in Ukraine.

In order to answer this question, I think it is helpful to get some background on Ukraine and U.S. involvement there.

Ukraine and U.S. Relations

The U.S. has been actively involved in giving aid to Ukraine since it declared independence from Russia in 1990. Ukraine is one of the largest and wealthiest nations of the former Soviet Union, and the U.S. (both Republicans and Democrats) and the EU have long considered Ukrainian independence essential for keeping Russian aggression in check. (You can read more about official White House policy regarding Ukraine here.)

Photo of Lviv, Ukraine by Andriyko Podilnyk, courtesy of Unsplash

In 1994 in the Budapest Memorandum, the U.S. promised support to Ukraine and has made good on this promise in various forms since that time. (You can read more about this here.)

Incidentally, Joe Biden has been a long-time advocate of Ukraine. (You can read more about this here.) And in fact, during his tenure as Vice President on several occasions, Biden pushed President Obama to give Ukraine more aid. But we will return to this in a moment.

What we should note at the point is that since Ukraine declared independence from Russia, support to Ukraine has been a significant part of bi-partisan U.S. foreign policy. This support became even more important when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, which was generally viewed by the U.S. and the EU as an inappropriate act of aggression.

Ukraine and the Obama

After Russia invaded Ukraine, there was a lot of debate about how best to support the country. While many people in Congress, both Republican and Democrat, were proponents of giving Ukraine lethal weapons assistance, President Obama was concerned that providing such assistance would escalate Russian aggression.

Issues like this were a common matter of debate. For example, while the Brookings Institute, a non-partisan DC think tank thought Obama did not prove adequate support to Ukraine (you can read more about this here), other political experts shared Obama’s concerns (you can read more about this here.)

Ukraine’s Corruption Problems

Ukrainian corruption further complicated such debates.

At one point, Ukraine was one of the most corrupt countries in the world and was plagued by a shadow economy which thrived off of bribery, smuggling, and theft. At one point, it was estimated that as much as one-fifth of the state treasury went to line private pockets. (You can read more about this here and here.)

In giving aid to Ukraine, the U.S. and other Ukrainian allies have always walked a fine line. On the one hand, strengthening Ukraine against Russian aggression helps to keep a balance of power in the world, and especially Europe. On the other hand, unless Ukraine deals with its own internal corruption, countries giving aid can never be certain whether the aid helps Ukraine or enriches private pockets. (This article details how past administrations, both Republican and Democrat, have handled giving aid to corrupt governments.)

Photo by Michael Longmire, Courtesy of Unsplash

Thus, the U.S., as well as Ukraine’s European allies and international financial institutions, have consistently demanded that Ukraine address its own corruption. (You can read about this here and here.)

Biden and Ukraine

Biden traveled to Ukraine several times and consistently urged them to address internal corruption. Specifically, Biden was concerned about big businesses in Ukraine, some of the CEO’s of which were bribing public officials in order to receive protection for suspect business practices.

Photo of Kyiv, Ukraine by Denys Rodionenko, courtesy of Unsplash

Of particular interest to Biden was Naftogaz, the state-owned natural gas company which appeared to be especially involved in bribery and corruption.  Biden told Ukraine that “The energy sector needs to be competitive, ruled by market principles — not sweetheart deals.” (You can read more about this here.)

While Biden seemed to be especially concerned about Naftogaz, there was another, smaller natural gas company in Ukraine called Burisma.

And this is where Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, enters the picture.

What Did Hunter Biden Do?

Hunter Biden graduated from Yale Law school and is a lawyer who has worked in both the public and private sector. He also started a private international consulting firm that consults, among other things, about renewable energy.

In 2014, Hunter Biden was asked to be on the board of Ukraine’s natural gas company Burisma. This was the same year that Biden assumed responsibility for negotiating with Ukraine after Russia invaded Ukraine.

Hunter Biden was payed $50,000 a month to be on Burisma’s board.

Was It Illegal or Unethical for Hunter Biden to be on Burisma’s Board?

It is important for me to note that I think $50,000 is an exorbitant amount of money for anyone to be payed monthly for serving on a board, and I believe it is morally problematic.[1]

Nevertheless, I would also like to point out that paying people exorbitant amounts of money to be on for-profit boards is common and legal in the U.S. For example, this article details board members in the U.S. who are payed  $1 million and $20 million for their board presence.

 

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon, courtesy of Unsplash

That people are legally paid this much to be on U.S. company boards doesn’t mean that it is morally excusable. It does suggest, however, that if we are concerned that Hunter Biden did something wrong by being on the board of Burisma, our immediate concern cannot be about how much he is getting payed to be on the board because board members in the U.S. are legally payed far more than Hunter Biden was.

The real question is whether Hunter Biden’s presence on Burisma’s board somehow unjustly influenced the White House and its treatment of Ukraine.

Did Hunter Biden’s Presence on Burisma’s Board Influence the White House?

As mentioned before, Hunter Biden had a law degree from Yale Law School; had worked in both the private and public sector; and owned an international consulting firm, one of the specialties of which was renewable energy.

All this education and experience made him a reasonable selection for a board member of a gas company. On Burisma’s website, Biden said he would help Burisma with “transparency, corporate governance and responsibility, international expansion”, which are all services he could provide given his education and experience.

Nevertheless, it is highly likely that Burisma asked Hunter Biden to be on Burisma’s board to increase their favorable standing with companies in the West and perhaps the White House as well.

By the way, selecting a board member for their name and connections is also common in the U.S. and not illegal in itself, although it is probably unwise and can be morally problematic. (You can read more about this here.) Biden’s selection to the board certainly had this appearance, and it is no surprise that some people in the White House, as well as other politicians and members of the press, were concerned that Hunter’s selection to Burisma’s board was a potential conflict of interest.

We should note that potential conflicts of interest are not illegal, but they are rightly a matter of concern to anyone concerned about ethics. Nevertheless, several DC ethics watchdog groups cleared the White House of wrongdoing at the time. A spokesman for one of the groups said, “It can’t be that because your dad is the vice president, you can’t do anything.” (You can read more about this here.)

I would like to note that while it was right for people to raise concerns over this potential conflict of interest, Joe Biden could not force his son, as a private citizen, not to take the board position.

In addition, given the national and international influence of the president and vice president, it would be almost impossible for their grown children to take a job or serve on a board that completely avoided any potential conflict of interest. (For example, this article details concerns about potential conflicts of interest with the President’s own children.)

Nevertheless, it is possible that Burisma used Hunter Biden (or conspired with Hunter Biden) to influence Joe Biden’s work in Ukraine in some corrupt manner.

The evidence suggests otherwise.

This is where Victor Shokin enters the picture.

Victor Shokin: Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Who Was Fired

Victor Shokin was the Prosecutor General of Ukraine. He was also a big concern to Ukrainian allies who wanted Ukraine to address its corruption. For example, such allies as “the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, the U.S. government, foreign investors, and Ukrainian advocates of reform” all believed Shokin was very soft on corruption and was participating in, or turning a blind eye to, the corruption practices long present in the country. (You and read more about this here and here.)

In fact, Burisma had been under investigation for possible corruption, and Victor Shokin tabled the investigation. (You can read more about this here.)

Joe Biden, U.S. Aid, and Victor Shokin

Given Shokin’s failure to address corruption in Ukraine, and given U.S. concern with giving aid to a country that failed to address internal corruption, it is not surprising that when Biden visited Ukraine in 2014, one of the things he demanded was that Ukraine fire Shokin and replace him with someone who would address Ukrainian corruption, something that almost all other Ukrainian allies were demanding at the time.

It is also not surprising that Biden told Ukraine that they were not getting U.S. aid until they fired and replaced Shokin, which Ukraine did.

Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm, Courtesy of Unsplash

Did Biden Do Anything Wrong? Was He Corrupt?

After Shokin was fired, he claimed that he was fired because he was going to investigate Burisma and that Biden got rid of him to prevent this from happening.

There are several problems with Shokin’s claim. First, as mentioned above, the general Ukrainian and international view of Shokin was that he was notoriously soft on corruption. It also appears that Shokin was the one who tabled the Burisma investigation.  (You can read about this here.)

Second, Biden told Ukraine that they had to clean up their business deals and make sure that all their companies, including their natural gas companies, ran by free-market principles, rather than by under-the-table-deals. So, by getting Ukraine to fire Shokin and hire someone who would root out corruption, especially in the business sector, Biden made it far more likely that Burisma would be investigated if there was indeed anything corrupt going on there.

A Problem with President Trump’s Corruption Charges

Multiple witness testify that in a call to the current Ukrainian president (as well as actions adjacent to this call), President Trump implied that the U.S. would withhold aid to Ukraine unless they announced an investigation into Biden’s corrupt activity.

It appears that the President was trying to withhold aid (without cause) to pressure Ukraine into announcing an investigation into the President’s primary political rival at the time. It also appears that the President did this although there was no concrete evidence to suggest Joe Biden did anything corrupt, and even though President Trump’s own security officials told him that the President’s charges against Biden were part of a debunked conspiracy theory. (You can read about the second post mentioned at the bottom of the page.)

This evidence suggests that President Trump was using U.S. money and the office of President to get Ukraine to do something that would benefit him personally. This would constitute a bribe.

Photo by Quino Al, Courtesy of Unsplash

President Trump claims he was trying to address corruption in Ukraine.

There is a significant problem with this claim. If Biden acted corruptly as President Trump claims, this means that Biden had Shokin fired because Shokin was trying to root out corruption in Ukraine by investigating Burisma.

If that is true, Shokin was doing what the U.S. had asked him to do: root out corruption. In this case, it would be U.S. politicians (namely, Joe Biden) who were corrupt, not Ukraine.

So, President Trump and Republican politicians need to decide:

Either Joe Biden was corrupt, and that means that in regards to Joe Biden, Ukraine (esp. Victor Shokin) wasn’t and the President has no grounds for withholding aid, since the corruption problem was in the U.S., not Ukraine. In fact, withholding aid runs counter to long-standing, bi-partisan U.S. foreign policy with Ukraine, as well as President Trump’s own administration’s policy with Ukraine. This calls into question President Trump’s recent motives and judgement.

OR

Joe Biden wasn’t corrupt and was following long-standing U.S. bipartisan foreign policy. This also calls into question President Trump’s recent motives and judgment.

It seems that either way, the President and Republican politicians who support the President have a problem.

Update: As of 10/20/2020, the President and various allies have been leveling accusations at Biden once again that he and Hunter Biden did something illegal in Ukraine. The current accusations are very vague but seem to suggest that, perhaps, the Biden family profited in some way from Hunter’s ties with the Burisma company. (You can read more about this here) It is important to note that it is not illegal, or even immoral per se, for a family to profit in some way from a family members work in another country. This sort of thing regularly happens in the U.S.

Perhaps people’s concern is that Hunter got his position on the Burisma board because of his father’s political clout and that the Biden family then profited from Hunter’s position. Once again, this in itself is neither illegal nor immoral. And, in fact, if the President is suggesting that no family member can ever profit in any way from their ties with a politician, it seems that the President is going to have to make some changes in his own family structure, for certainly his own children have profited from their connection with Trump and his time in office.

There may be an implication that Hunter Biden and, therefore, the Biden family profited from illegal business Burisma did–a financial conflict of interests, as it were. As I have written about in the above post, there is no consistent evidence that indicates this. In addition, if the President is serious about accusations like this, he could put a lot of pressure on Joe Biden by making his own tax returns available to the public (something which people have been requesting for four years and that he has yet to do and, in fact, has actively fought against doing) in order to show that he has nothing to hide and has no financial conflicts of interest of his own.

It is very odd that the President continually accuses Biden of financial impropriety but, simultaneously, is so reticent to take steps to show that he himself is free of financial impropriety. One can’t help but wonder if the President’s vague accusations of Biden’s financial impropriety are meant to distract from public suspicions of his own financial impropriety, suspicions which (once again) he could dispel if he would make his tax returns public, something which every President for the past 40 years has done to show they have no financial conflict of interests.

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Here are the first four posts in this series:

A Presidential Impeachment Primer

Should the President Be Impeached? (An Examination of the Evidence)

Do the President’s Actions Constitute High Crimes and Misdemeanors? (What Would the Writers of the Constitution Say?)

Reasoning Errors to Avoid During the Impeachment Inquiry

By the way, I teach ethics at a local college, and I have long been concerned that the President is amoral (lacks any clear moral compass) and that any good he does for the U.S. is contingent on whether or not it benefits him personally.

I am an Independent (and have voted both Republican and Democrat), and I believe that having a moral president in the White House is more important than having either a Republican or Democrat president in the White House. Here is a post I wrote last year about President Trump’s amorality:

Is the President Amoral? Does it Matter?

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[1] I believe it is morally problematic for anyone to be payed exorbitant amounts of money when a majority of people in the world are barely able to feed themselves enough food to stay alive or to find adequate shelter. This claim, however, requires a lot of explanation, evidence, and definition work, and is the subject of another post.

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