Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign manager, John Podesta, played a central role in another potential Russian collusion scandal that has not yet been investigated.
Podesta, the former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, served on the board of Joule Unlimited, a now defunct alternative energy company, from January 2011 to January 2014. He resigned from the company’s board to accept the powerful job of Counselor to President Barack Obama.
During Podesta’s tenure on the board of Joule Unlimited, a significant investment in the company by a firm owned by the Russian government escaped review and scrutiny by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS).
In September 2011, eight months after Podesta joined the board of Joule Unlimited, Rusnano, a venture capital fund wholly owned by the Russian government, announced it was investing one billion Russian rubles, $35 million, in the company, which accounted for 46 percent of the $75 million invested in it up to that time from its launch in 2007. Founders Afeyan Noubar and Dr. David Berry invested an estimated $10 million in the 2007 first round. The venture firm Noubar heads, Flagship Ventures – now known as Flagship Pioneering – led a second round investment of $30 million in 2010, as the Boston Globe reported.
Curiously, the CFIUS failed to initiate a review of the transaction despite statutory and administrative guidelines that any such transaction in which a foreign country or foreign company obtained more than a ten percent interest in an American company was reviewable.
“CFIUS has significant discretion to determine when a foreign entity has sufficient control to confer jurisdiction,” according to Overview of the CFIUS Process, a report prepared by the law firm Waltham & Lakins, a leading practitioner before CFIUS:
As a practical matter, the scope of CFIUS’ jurisdiction is often ambiguous. This ambiguity is illustrated by the one “safe harbor” explicitly established by CFIUS’ regulations, which provides that investments resulting in a foreign person having an ownership interest of 10% or less of the outstanding voting interests in the US business are not within CFIUS’ jurisdiction, if those investments are held “solely for the purpose of passive investment.”
While this formulation appears straightforward, a closer read reveals that the “passive” nature of the investment can be called into question in light of “other” facts deemed relevant by CFIUS — e.g., contractual or other arrangements between the foreign investor and the target. (emphasis added)
Apparently no member of the management teams or board of directors of either Joule Unlimited or Rusnano USA notified CFIUS of the transaction before it took place, which is surprising, given the sophistication and business experience of both parties, as well as typical practices in such transactions.
“Where CFIUS arguably has jurisdiction over a given transaction, the parties ‘voluntarily’ notify CFIUS of the transaction in the first instance,” Waltham & Lakins notes in Overview of the CFIUS Process:
If a given transaction arguably is within the scope of CFIUS’ jurisdiction, parties normally will file if they perceive a significant level of CFIUS-related risk associated with the target (often referred to as a “vulnerability”) or associated with the foreign investor (often referred to as a “threat”). Many factors inform the parties’ evaluation of the nature and extent of such risk, including (but not limited to):
- The likely impact of proposed transaction on national defense requirements
- The foreign investor’s nationality and the extent of its ownership by foreign governments (e.g., Chinese investments are generally perceived as high-risk)
- The target’s involvement in and ties to national security-related activity and “critical infrastructure” in the United States
- The proximity of the target’s assets to sensitive US government locations, such as military installations (which may be known or unknown to the target)
Established in 1988, CFIUS is an interagency board consisting of representatives from nine major cabinet departments, the most significant being the Dept. of Treasury, whose representative chairs the board, and the Department of State.
Assistant Secretary of State for Economy, Energy and Business Affairs Jose W. Fernandez served as the Department of State’s representative to CFIUS at the time it ignored the Rusnano investment in Joule Unlimited.
Nominated by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate, Fernandez was sworn in on December 1, 2009 and was the State Department’s representative on the CFIUS board in October 2010 when it approved the controversial acquisition of Uranium One, the Canadian company that owned 20 percent of U.S. uranium reserves, by ARMZ, which is wholly owned by the Russian government.
That controversial approval came just four months after former President Bill Clinton–husband to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, also the co-founder of the Clinton Foundation–was paid $500,000 by Renaissance Capital “for his 90-minute June 29, 2010, speech, one of the largest one-day fees Bill Clinton ever earned. Renaissance Capital had ties with the Kremlin and was talking up the Uranium One purchase in 2010, giving it an encouraging investment rating in Russia right at the time the U.S. was considering approval of the uranium sale, according to reports in the New York Times in 2015,” as The Hill reported.
Fernandez’s relationship with Podesta came under scrutiny in 2016, when a Wikileaks email describing a 2015 phone conversation between the two about how Fernandez described former Secretary of State Clinton’s role in the 2010 Uranium One deal approval by CFIUS came to light, as The Daily Caller reported:
But on April 17, 2015, just five days before Fallon sent his denial to The New York Times with Fernandez’s disclaimer, Podesta was in contact with Fernandez by phone.
Fernandez responded by enthusiastically declaring his loyalty to Hillary Clinton and his desire to do so in the future:
“John, It was good to talk to you this afternoon, and I appreciate your taking the time to call. As I mentioned, I would like to do all I can to support Secretary Clinton, and would welcome your advice and help in steering me to the right persons in the campaign.”
If Fernandez was not exactly an impartial observer, given his explicitly stated desire to assist in Clinton’s campaign, he was also connected to Podesta in another significant way – through membership on the board of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think-tank with close ties to the Clintons. John Podesta founded the organization.
In an e-mail on March 29, 2015, Fernandez attributed his recent good fortune to Podesta’s intervention:
“Hi John, I trust you are getting a brief rest after a job well done. Thanks no doubt to your recommendation I have joined the CAP [Center for American Progress] board of trustees, which I’m finding extremely rewarding.”
That failure of CFIUS to scrutinize the Russian government’s investment in Joule Unlimited fit the pattern established by the Russian “reset” established by Hillary Clinton when she was confirmed as Secretary of State, as an August 2016 report from the Government Accountability Institute noted:
One area of quick movement and success was on technological cooperation and financial investment. In theory, the idea was simple: encourage U.S. companies to invest in Russia to tap the country’s strengths in basic scientific talent while creating opportunities for Russian investment in U.S. tech companies.
Hillary Clinton and the Obama Administration saw the opportunity for widespread technological cooperation between the U.S. and Russia. During her October 2009 visit to Russia, she noted the country’s strength in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics): “[I]t’s just a treasure trove of potential for the Russian economy.”
Vice President Joe Biden echoed that sentiment two years later during his visit to Russia: “Closer cooperation will allow American companies to benefit from greater access to Russia’s deep pool of talented engineers, mathematicians and computer scientists.”
According to leaked State Department cables, Russian government officials were told that the Obama Administration saw “building the science and technology (S & T) relationship with Russia as an important pillar in strengthening overall bilateral relations….”
Technological cooperation and investment deals seemed to be the sort of “win-win” deals President Obama said he sought. But as we will see, the Clintons and close aides appear to have personally benefitted from such deals. And these deals also raised serious questions from the FBI, the U.S. Army, and foreign governments that the Russian military was benefitting from them as well.
From the time Hillary Clinton was confirmed as Secretary of State in January 2009, John Podesta was a close adviser to her, as the August 2016 GAI report indicated on page 21:
During Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, he [John Podesta] was in regular contact with her and played an important role in shaping U.S. policy. For one thing, he sat on the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board, appointed by Hillary. (The board was established in December 2011.)
The full extent of Podesta’s email communication cannot ultimately be known because Hillary Clinton deleted approximately half of her emails after she left the State Department. Of the emails that remain, there is ample evidence that Podesta played a major role in advising her.
According to publicly released emails, as early as May 20, 2009, Podesta joined Clinton for a working dinner in the Monroe Room at the State Department. Other emails indicate that a “monthly thinking group” met at the State Department with Clinton including John Podesta and six others. Podesta and Secretary Clinton exchanged emails concerning personnel matters. Podesta was also actively involved in reviewing and helping to edit Hillary Clinton’s speeches. There were emails in which Podesta would reach out and speak with Clinton about his meetings with foreign leaders.
Clearly these emails at times covered sensitive subjects; numerous email exchanges between Podesta and senior State Department officials were redacted because they dealt with sensitive material.
While serving on the board of Joule Unlimited, Podesta was joined in 2012 by one of Vladimir Putin’s closest associates, Anatoly Chubais, according to a press release still up on the Rusnano USA website:
Joule today announced the election of Anatoly Chubais to its board of directors, adding the expertise and insight of a prominent figure in international business, economics and government. The news was released in conjunction with Joule’s participation at the Russia Forum, an annual meeting of high-profile international economists and business leaders.
Mr. Chubais is Chairman and CEO of RUSNANO, a $10 billion Russian Federation-owned fund created to drive commercialization in the areas of nanotech, biotech and renewable energy, among others. Prior to joining RUSNANO, Mr. Chubais held numerous influential roles both in business and government, including Chairman of Unified Energy System (RAO UES); Russia’s privatized electric power holding, and as Minister of Finance, First Deputy Prime Minister and Presidential Chief-of-Staff under Boris Yeltsin. He is credited for playing a key role in Russia’s transformation to a market-based economy.
“We are very pleased to welcome Anatoly to the board, given his considerable knowledge of global markets and focus on cutting-edge technologies,” said Noubar Afeyan, Founder and Chairman of Joule and Managing Partner of Flagship Ventures. “His expertise, together with the resources made possible through the RUSNANO network, will help accelerate Joule’s plans for growth overseas.”
“Renewable energy and jobs creation are critical goals to many regions outside of the U.S., and Joule is accordingly planning for global deployment to bring much-needed localization to fuel and chemical production,” said William J. Sims, President and CEO of Joule. “Anatoly joins the board at an ideal time as we advance towards our first phase of commercial production and international expansion in 2012. We look forward to his insight, contributions and assistance in locating Joule facilities in Russia.”
“It is an honor to join the board of a company like Joule, whose technology has far-reaching potential to make cost-efficient renewable fuel and chemical production a worldwide reality in the near term,” said Mr. Chubais. “Having closely studied its solar-driven process and system, I am confident that Joule is uniquely positioned to achieve the scale and costs that can finally alleviate global dependence on fossil fuels.”
The total amount invested in Rusnano USA by Joule Unlimited came to 1.1 billion Russian rubles, or a little more than $39 million in 2011 dollars. (Due to the dramatic decline of the ruble over the past eight years, the current value of that investment, in 2019 dollars, is a little over $16 million.) Here’s the Rusnano USA description of Joule Unlimited:
Joule Unlimited is a startup company operating at the interface between energy efficiency and biotechnology. The company is carrying out research into genetic engineering of cyanobacteria, designing and commercializing technology for the industrial production of ethanol and diesel fuel. Joule Unlimited was founded in 2007 by Flagship VentureLabs. It is headquartered in Bedford, Massachusetts (USA) and is a subsidiary of Joule Global Holdings B.V.
All told, Joule Unlimited received $200 million in investments before it was shut down in 2017, a consequence of the changed political attitude towards federal subsidization of experimental alternative energy sources in the new Trump administration.
Due to its investment in Joule Unlimited through Rusnano USA, the Russian government stood to benefit financially if pro-alternate energy Hillary Clinton won the presidency in 2016, and to lose financially if Donald Trump won, which The Daily Caller noted in this article on the demise of Joule Unlimited in October 2017:
Joule Unlimited, a secretive green energy company that appears to have placed a big bet hiring Democratic insider John Podesta to its board, appears to have been doomed when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election.
When the 2016 presidential election ended, senior company executives admitted the prospects for their renewable energy “biofuels” company evaporated. “We had a lot of prospects last year,” former Joule CEO Brian Baynes told BioFuels Digest in a rare interview in July. “But those new investor prospects walked away, particularly post-election.”
Dmitry Akhanov, the president and CEO of Rusnano USA Inc., a Kremlin-owned venture capital firm nicknamed “Putin’s child,” oversaw the Russian government’s investment in Joule and sat on its board along with two other Russians with ties to the Kremlin. Akhavov agreed that Clinton’s loss doomed the company.
“We lined up investors who were willing to buy the bonds, but after the elections, with some statements from the new administration regarding potential uncertainty, the future support of biofuels was stopped,” he told The Daily Caller News Foundation in an interview. “The company was not able to do the deal and it was one of the reasons why the company was closed.”
Akhanov confirmed to TheDCNF his company invested and lost 1 billion rubles, worth $35 million when Joule closed its doors.
According to the 2012 CFIUS annual report, there were no “covered transactions” from Russian companies reviewed in 2011, although a total of 111 other transactions that year were identified as “covered transactions,” including 25 from the UK, 14 from France, and ten from China.
Throughout Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State from January 2009 to February 2013, Russian investments in American technology and related companies did not receive a great deal of attention from CFIUS.
In calendar year 2009, for instance, 65 “covered transactions” were reviewed by CFIUS. Not one was from a Russian Federation company. (Source: CFIUS 2012 Annual Report to Congress) Of these 65 reviewed transactions, five notices were withdrawn prior to the commencement of an investigation, 25 investigations were undertaken, and two notices were withdrawn after investigations commenced. In total seven of the 65 “covered transactions” were withdrawn, Law360.com reported.
In calendar year 2010, 93 “covered transactions” were reviewed by CFIUS during 2010, four from Russia. All four were approved. (Source: CFIUS 2012 Annual Report to Congress). Of these 93 reviewed transactions, six notices were withdrawn prior to the commencement of an investigation, 35 investigations were undertaken, and six notices were withdrawn after investigations commenced. In total 12 of the 93 “covered transactions” were withdrawn, Law360.com reported.
In calendar year 2011, 111 “covered transactions” were reviewed by CFIUS, but not one was from the Russian Federation. (Source: CFIUS 2012 Annual Report to Congress). Of these 111 reviewed transactions, one notice was withdrawn prior to the commencement of an investigation, Forty investigations were undertaken, and five notices were withdrawn after investigations commenced. In total six of the 111 “covered transactions” were withdrawn, Law360.com reported.
In calendar year 2012, 114 “covered transactions” reviewed by CFIUS during 2012 of which two were from the Russian Federation (Source: CFIUS 2014 Annual Report to Congress). Of these 114 reviewed transactions, two notices were withdrawn prior to the commencement of an investigation, 45 investigations were undertaken, ten notices were withdrawn after investigations commenced, and one presidential decision was made. In total 12 of the 114 “covered transactions” were withdrawn, Law360.com reported.
All told, in the four years between January 2009 and December 2012, CFIUS reviewed 383 transactions, only six of which involved companies from the Russian Federation.
Breitbart News asked CFIUS, Mr. Podesta, Rusnano, Rusnano USA, Flagship Pioneering, former Assistant Secretary of State Jose W. Fernandez, and former Joule Unlimited CEO William Sims for comment but did not receive a response from any of those contacted.
Lacking a focused investigation into John Podesta, Rusnano,and Joule Unlimited, we may never know why CFIUS failed to review a transaction that by all apparent indicators fit the statutory requirements for CFIUS review.