Joe and Hunter Biden: Three questions about Ukraine corruption

Why We Wrote This

There are a lot of conspiracy theories and justifications being floated about Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Here’s a look at what is known about the legal and ethical claims against the Bidens.

Carlos Barria/Reuters/File
Vice President Joe Biden (right) recognizes faces in the crowd with his son Hunter as they walk down Pennsylvania Avenue following the inauguration ceremony of President Barack Obama in Washington Jan. 20, 2009.

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In a July 25 phone call to the president of Ukraine, President Donald Trump was “pressuring a foreign country to investigate one of the president’s main domestic political rivals,” specifically 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden, according to an official whistleblower complaint. 

Ukrainian officials say Hunter Biden did nothing illegal while working for the largest natural gas company in Ukraine. But if his role wasn’t illegal, was it ethical? It was not, according to Sarah Chayes, author of “Thieves of State.” She sees this as an example of a global culture of U.S. “consultants” – including former officials of the Obama and Bush administrations – being paid large sums to help legitimize theft by kleptocrats, she writes in The Atlantic. “How did dealing in influence to burnish the fortunes of repugnant world leaders for large payoffs become a business model?”

Unless there’s evidence that Hunter Biden was hired only to whitewash the company’s reputation, “Is it morally appropriate to give the worst possible interpretation? That’s not fair,” says ethicist Michael Davis. “If it is true,” he adds, “then they’re doing something that’s not moral: trying to deceive people.”

In a July 25 phone call to the president of Ukraine, President Donald Trump was “pressuring a foreign country to investigate one of the president’s main domestic political rivals,” specifically 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden, according to an official whistleblower complaint. A pdf of the complaint is available here. The president’s personal lawyer has met with Ukrainian officials multiple times seeking information about Hunter Biden’s activities in Ukraine. Here’s a look at the legal and ethical claims leveled at the Bidens.

1. What was Hunter Biden doing in Ukraine?

In April 2014, Hunter Biden joined the board of directors of Burisma Holdings, the largest natural gas producer in Ukraine. At the time Burisma was whitewashing its image, say anti-corruption activists, by inviting high-profile Americans and Europeans to join the board. The former president of Poland, Aleksander Kwasniewski, had recently been added to the board, as had one of Hunter’s investment company partners, Devon Archer. 

Hunter Biden had no previous experience in the natural gas industry, Ukraine, or regulatory oversight, as his title at Burisma suggested. 

Adding these people with these fancy names to the board made Burisma, [which] got licenses to extract gas in Ukraine through very suspicious means, look like a Western, legitimate company,” Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center, a nongovernmental organization in Ukraine, told The Washington Post. 

Burisma was founded by a former minister of ecology and natural resources, Mykola Zlochevsky. Two months prior to Hunter Biden joining Burisma, U.K. authorities opened a money-laundering investigation and froze $23 million in company funds. But by 2015 the money was released (for lack of evidence) and by 2017, all legal proceedings against the company and Mr. Zlochevsky had been closed. 

“From the perspective of Ukrainian legislation, he [Hunter Biden] did not violate anything,” Yuri Lutsenko, the former prosecutor general of Ukraine, told The Washington Post recently. “Hunter Biden cannot be responsible for violations of the management of Burisma that took place two years before his arrival.” 

Mr. Lutsenko also told the Los Angeles Times on Saturday that he had met twice with Rudy Giuliani and spoken with him numerous times by phone, but had rebuffed Mr. Giuliani’s efforts to get him to launch an investigation into Hunter Biden.  

Ukraine’s current top prosecutor hasn’t launched an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden or his son. “As of now, there is nothing there,” Nazar Kholodnitskiy, the head of the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office, said in an interview with NV radio.

2. Why did Joe Biden push to remove a prosecutor in Ukraine?

In short, corruption. But not the kind that President Trump has alleged. 

Joe Biden was the Obama administration’s point person on relations with Kyiv. In 2015, Joe Biden, along with the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, the European Union, and the International Monetary Fund, called for Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin of Ukraine to be fired. But that was not because Mr. Shokin was investigating Burisma, as Mr. Giuliani has said, but because he wasn’t, Ms. Kaleniuk, the Ukraine anticorruption investigator, told the Daily Beast.

During a visit in 2016, Joe Biden threatened to withhold $1 billion in U.S. loan guarantees unless Mr. Shokin was fired. “I looked at them and said: ‘I’m leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money,’” Joe Biden said during a 2018 speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. Mr. Shokin was fired. The move was praised in Europe as a step toward tackling corruption.

But Mr. Shokin told The Washington Post earlier this year that he was ousted in March 2016 because he was investigating Burisma. He also questioned Hunter Biden’s qualifications to be a Burisma board member, noting that “this person had no work experience in Ukraine or in the energy sector.” 

3. If Hunter Biden’s role wasn’t illegal, was it ethical? 

It was not ethical, according to Sarah Chayes, author of “Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security.” In an Atlantic opinion piece, she suggests that Burisma was using the Biden name to scrub its reputation and Hunter Biden was cashing in. She sees the Ukraine case as an example of a global culture of U.S. “consultants” – including former Obama and Bush officials – being paid large sums to help legitimize theft, by “trading on their connections and their access to insider policy information – usually by providing services to kleptocrats...,” she writes. “How did dealing in influence to burnish the fortunes of repugnant world leaders for large payoffs become a business model? How could America’s leading lights convince themselves – and us – that this is acceptable?”

But unless there’s evidence that Hunter Biden was hired only to whitewash Burisma’s reputation, “is it morally appropriate to give the worst possible interpretation? That’s not fair or ethical,” says Michael Davis, senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions at Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. But he adds, “If it is true, then they’re doing something that’s not moral: trying to deceive people.”

As for Hunter Biden using his surname for profit, Professor Davis says, “there’s nothing immoral about trading on your name, unless you’re a government official. If you have a famous brother, it may help you sell shoes. I don’t see anything wrong with that.”

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