Hillary Clinton’s campaign chief once opened doors at home and abroad for an alternative energy firm whose investors include a Vladimir Putin-supported Russian company.
These ties were highlighted last week when Donald Trump’s campaign alleged that John Podesta, a former chief of staff to Bill Clinton and special counselor to Barack Obama in 2014 and 2015, had secretly transferred shares of stock in a Putin-backed company to an anonymous Delaware company.
The accusations were misleading. For example, the Trump campaign wrongly claimed that Podesta failed to declare stock holdings of that company when he joined the White House in 2014. And on Sunday, former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich wrongly told ABC’s “This Week” that Podesta “was on a Russian company advisory board that was apparently funded by Putin.”
Podesta never sat on a Russian company advisory board. He did, however, sit on the board of directors of an American company that attracted a Russian state fund as an investor.
His private emails, made public this month by WikiLeaks, a website that publishes leaked documents, shed more light on his indirect ties to Russia. U.S. law enforcement and intelligence have accused Russia of meddling in the coming U.S. elections, including hacking into the Democratic National Committee’s server and into Podesta’s personal emails.
The details in the WikiLeaks emails are also important because both campaigns are accusing the other of ties to, and support from, Russia. Trump said Monday that, if elected, he might meet with Russian President Putin before the inauguration, leading President Barack Obama a day later to call Trump’s “flattery” of Putin “unprecedented in American politics.”
Podesta served from December 2010 through January 2014 as a director of Joule Unlimited Technologies. It’s a privately held company that aims for the commercial-scale production of ethanol made from carbon dioxide. It’s sometimes called “solar fuel,” and Joule is testing it with German automaker Audi.
Trump calls Joule a Putin-backed company because one of its stakeholders is RUSNANO USA of Menlo Park, California, which invested $35 million in the company in March 2011. The Joule website says that at least $200 million has been raised from investors.
RUSNANO USA’s parent company is JSC RUSNANO, a Russian state enterprise whose self-described mission is to co-invest in nanotechnology projects around the world that have “substantial economic or social potential.” Nanotechnology involves computer chips and other microscopic devices constructed on a scale as small as individual atoms and molecules.
JSC RUSNANO, according to news reports, fell out of favor with Putin, who considered closing the state enterprise over allegations that some of the $5 billion set aside for its 2007 startup had ended up in offshore shell companies.
RUSNANO USA President Dmitry Akhanov said his company was a small stakeholder in Joule, controlling about 5 percent. “We do not have and have never had any business relationship with Mr. Podesta,” he said.
Akhanov said he’d joined the Joule board at the time Podesta was leaving it. “From what I heard from my peers he was just one of the board members,” the Russian executive said, adding that RUSNANO USA operates independently from its parent company as an investment fund that takes small stakes in tech companies that show promise.
As to Putin’s alleged involvement, Akhanov said he never hears from the Russian leader and that “we have never been involved in politics, neither in Russia nor the U.S.; we are a pure investment fund.”
Exactly what Podesta did as a Joule board member is unclear, and Joule’s chairman didn’t answer an email asking for clarification. When Podesta joined the board, then-Joule CEO Bill Sims said in a statement that “we look forward to leveraging his insights as we progress toward international deployment.”
Joule’s chairman, Noubar Afeyan, is a venture capitalist who runs Flagship Ventures, a Massachusetts investment firm with the Midas touch. Forbes reported on March 19 that the Lebanese immigrant has launched 38 companies in America.
The Obama administration has made renewable and alternative fuels a top priority, and Afeyan saw Podesta as a well-connected insider. That’s evident in one of the leaked Afeyan emails to Podesta asking for help in opening doors in Europe and Asia.
“Dear John, I wanted to get this back on your radar screen hoping you can make some intros in the far east as we had previously discussed,” Afeyan wrote on Oct. 12, 2015.
In an Aug. 31, 2015, email, he had asked Podesta for guidance on “how best to forge partnerships globally.”
The Clinton campaign has not commented on the authenticity of the emails. McClatchy sent a detailed list of questions to Joule’s PR firm, Version 2.0 Communications, and Libby Botsford, an outside spokesperson, said the Joule executive team had no comment.
Invited to the board and offered shares
The leaked Podesta emails suggest he was invited to join the Joule board of directors on Oct. 23, 2010, and accepted on Dec. 17, 2010. The existing board created an extra seat for him. The invitation included an option to purchase 100,000 shares of common stock with a price equal to fair-market value. He could buy 100,000 shares in the future, with a price determined by the board at the time of granting. Because the company is privately held, there is no public information on share value. The business data group Hoovers lists Joule’s annual sales at $38.31 million.
Podesta stepped down from Joule’s board on Jan. 4, 2014, when he joined the Obama administration. A leaked email shows he transferred his Joule shares to Leonidio Holdings LLC, a company formed in Delaware – a state favored by Trump, whose own disclosure forms list 378 companies there. Delaware’s laws allow the true owners and other company details to remain secret. The private correspondence between Podesta and Joule executives includes a Dublin, California, address for Leonidio Holdings that is also the address of his daughter Megan Rouse, who is a certified financial planner.
Records with the Delaware secretary of state’s office show only that Leonidio Holdings was established by a registered agent in Wilmington called Corporation Service Co. on Dec. 20, 2013.
John Cobb, a tax adviser for the law firm Steptoe & Johnson LLP, signed the company-formation document. Cobb’s online bio shows he works in the group’s Washington, D.C., office. Yet another leaked email from 2015, after Podesta had left the Joule board, shows his daughter telling him that she’d learned from Cobb that Joule was taking a stake in Colorado-based Red Rock Biofuels to create a biofuels refinery, suggesting the Podesta family tracked Joule developments.
In his White House disclosure records, signed in February 2014, Podesta reported owning less than $1,000 in stock and options for Joule Global Holdings and for Joule Unlimited Technologies Inc. and deriving less than $201 in income from them. He did not make any mention of Leonidio Holdings, the Delaware company, which the WikiLeaks emails suggest received 75,000 transferred shares.
“When Podesta went back to the work at the White House, he worked with White House counsel to personally divest from Joule and ensure he was in full compliance with all government ethics rules,” Josh Schwerin, a Clinton campaign spokesman, said in an email to McClatchy. “He transferred the entirety of his holdings to his adult children, resigned all positions with the company and filed the appropriate forms which were then certified by the appropriate ethics officials. As an additional step, he recused himself from all matters pertaining to Joule for the duration of his time at the White House.”
Podesta’s disclosure forms also list him as sitting on the Joule board of directors as of July 2011, but the WikiLeaks documents show him signing an agreement to join the board on Dec. 17, 2010. The reason for this discrepancy is unclear.
Access to energy policy official
The WikiLeaks emails show that Podesta had deep access within the Obama administration. Emails show him conversing on Nov. 28, 2011, with Brandon Hurlbut, then-chief of staff to then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu, about a coming visit by Chu to Joule’s laboratories.
“The gang is excited. I think he’ll be impressed,” Podesta tells Hurlbut, going on to say that he’d like to get his views on the agency’s priorities for 2012 and 2013.
In an email the following day, Hurlbut, who has since created a consultancy for renewable energy called Boundary Stone Partners, answers. He tells Podesta about a meeting that day with more than a dozen senators to determine the political viability of energy-innovation ideas. He also shares plans to engage the scientific and academic community on key tech challenges like solar biofuels, electric vehicle batteries and how to make it all cost competitive.
In a telephone interview, Hurlbut said there was nothing wrong with the question from Podesta, who sat on the board of a private firm whose business goals coincided with the administration’s alternative energy push.
“People ask me all the time what the department is up to,” he said. “There’s nothing sensitive in that email.”
The Clinton campaign declined to answer questions about Podesta’s emails to Hurlbut.
Hurlbut said: “I felt fortunate to be able to engage with a leading expert like John to get feedback, as I did with many other experts.”
Akhanov, the Russian investor, also saw no conflict in Podesta’s political connections.
“It’s pretty common to have experienced people on commercial boards of companies, people who are no longer in service,” he said.