The US ambassador to the European Union is said to have been an active proponent of the Trump administration’s efforts to change the leadership at Ukraine’s state-owned energy company even though the move seemed to undermine anti-corruption efforts.
Multiple sources told NBC News that ambassador Gordon Sondland – a hotelier and major Trump campaign donor – pushed for a change in leadership at Naftogaz even though career diplomats believed that the company’s new CEO and independent supervisory board had eliminated many of its corrupt practices.
A source said that Sondland was ‘was generally unhappy with their governance (at Naftogaz), and encouraged them to shake up the board, but not necessarily replace specific individuals.’
Sources said that US Ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland, tried to push the Ukraine to change the leadership at its state-run energy company, Naftogaz
Sondland was said to have been seeking to have Naftogaz ‘adopt more Western-style corporate governance and an independent board,’ because he saw ‘endemic corruption and weak governance as an obstacle to U.S. investment, which he strongly supported.’
Sondland was said to have been initially seeking to replace all four of the international members on Naftogaz’s seven-member board. Those efforts were then changed to focus instead on removing Amos Hochstein, who was appointed in 2018 and had worked for the State Department under the Obama administration, according to the sources.
Sondland’s efforts to encourage the Naftogaz leadership change were said to have blindsided and confused American diplomats in both Kiev and Washington, DC.
The efforts also occurred at about the same time that President Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was pressuring Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Democrats including former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, in a bid to help Trump’s re-election campaign.
Sondland’s efforts were said to come at about the same time that Rudy Giuliani was pressuring Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy (pictured) to investigate Democrats
Giuliani (pictured) has come under fire for trying to pressure Zelenskiy to dig up dirt on Democrats as part of a bid to help Trump’s reelection campaign
Rudy Giuliani is acting as Trump’s (left) personal attorney. The issue of changing Naftogaz’s leadership was said to have been broached at a May meeting that Energy Secretary Rick Perry (right) attended, along with Sondland, Zelenskiy and U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker
The sources told NBC News that the Ukrainian government then saw Sondland’s Naftogaz leadership change as part of the Trump administration’s larger attempts to exert influence.
The sources said that the Naftogaz leadership issue was broached during meetings in May, between Sondland, Zelenskiy, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and the U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, while they were in Kiev for Zelenskiy’s inauguration.
During the meetings, Perry was said to have stated that there needed to be a ‘fundamental change’ in the Naftogaz leadership.
But, an administration official denied that Perry proposed any change to the company’s supervisory board, which includes four international members. Instead, the official said that Perry had just offered up four names, as well as some government experts, who could advise Zelenskiy’s office on energy issues.
The Energy Department official said that Perry didn’t recommend that these people should be placed on any board. Among the suggested people were Perry campaign donor and Ukrainian-American Michael Bleyzer and Robert Bensh, who worked for former Ukrainian energy minister Yuri Boyko in the country’s pro-Russian government until it was toppled in 2014.
Ukrainian officials were said to have been alarmed by the this interest in Naftogaz’s board, because Giuliani associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman had been seeking the removal of the company’s reform-minded CEO as part of a scheme to sell liquified natural gas to the company.
Parnas and Fruman – Florida businessmen who were born in the former USSR – were arrested on October 9 on campaign finance charges of planning to funnel foreign money to US political candidates.
It is unclear if Sondland’s effort to change the Naftogaz leadership was made in conjunction with Giuliani or his associates, but it is said that if the leadership change had been made, it could have benefited Parnas and Fruman, as well as corrupt elements in the Ukraine that were looking to eliminate the energy company’s independence.
Both Sondland nor Naftogaz representatives declined to give NBC News comments on the sources’ statements.
Giuliani, meanwhile, has denied any involvement with efforts aimed at Naftogaz.