Report: Fringe Conspiracy Guy/Trump Official Joins @StateDept ‘One Team’ as Arms Control Senior Advisor

 

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USEU Gordon Sondland’s Home Renovation in Brussels: Much Higher Than First Reported

 

WaPo and Vanity Fair both reported about the renovation at the Chief of Mission Residence in Brussels, the official residence of the US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland. Excerpt via Vanity Fair:

A sampling of State Department contracts reveals that since September 2018—just a few months after Sondland’s Senate confirmation—the embassy in Brussels has been awarded $95,109 for a pergola, $13,301 for a pool-Jacuzzi heating system, $33,625 on wooden household furniture, $208,683 on a professional kitchen remodel, and two bathroom renovations, one costing $53,809 and the other $82,354. Additionally, the State Department spent $103,748 on a hotel, to ostensibly serve as an alternate residence to the embassy while the building undergoes renovations for months of September and October of this year. (In a statement, a spokesperson for the State Department confirmed that updates to the residence had been funded in 2019 “as part of its regular 17-year cycle of reviewing and refreshing furnishings and interior décor in representational residences.”)

WaPo’s reporting estimates the renovations at nearly $1 million including a $209,000 professional kitchen, and a $223,000 family kitchen. The actual obligation may  actually be higher than first reported.
A sourced familiar with the matter told us that the Chief of Mission Residence (CMR) was built in 1990 so one’s guesstimate is that the residence is  due for renovation as one of those “representational spaces.” The first contracts were awarded in September 2018, just two months after Sondland got to Brussels. (Sondland was confirmed via voice vote on June 28, 2018). Folks who understand how funding in government works can see that this “wasn’t all his initiative.” But .. because there’s always a but,  we understand from our source that the great bulk of the project items were added “more recently.” The Bureau of Overseas Building Operations  (OBO) reportedly approved all of it and the Office of Acquisition Management (State/AQM) awarded the contracts.
So a fairly modest renovation project was amped up until the contract award to an 8A firm reached $2.5 million?  More? Our source also told us, “Whether that much renovation was needed, or exactly how lavish is too lavish for a representational residence, I can’t say.”
Definitive Contract 19AQMM19C0088 is a Fixed Price Federal Contract Award. It was awarded to Pono Aina Management LLC of Oklahoma on Jun 12, 2019. The definitive contract is funded by the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations (DOS). The potential value of the award is $2,504,000 with potential end date of June 11, 2020. The solicitation procedure is marked “simplified acquisition” and  the set-aside type is marked “8(A) Sole Source.”

Why State/OIG Should Look Into Diplomatic Security’s Mina Chang Headache

 

NBC News did a follow up report on the Mina Change story it broke that lead to the resignation of the deputy assistant secretary of state at the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations. Excerpt:

To secure her job at the State Department in April, Chang leveraged social connections to senior officials who could help open the doors to the administration, including Brian Bulatao, a close friend and deputy to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; a State Department official and former defense contractor who she succeeded as deputy assistant secretary, Pete Marocco; and a congressional staffer for key GOP lawmaker Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, multiple sources said. Marocco endorsed her for the job and McCaul wrote her a recommendation letter.
[…]
By the time Rep. McCaul issued the recommendation letter, Chang’s nomination was moving ahead thanks to her own contacts in the administration, said a spokesperson for the congressman, Kaylin Minton.
[..]
Chang lists just $12,000 in income before she took the State Department job and listed no salary from her charity. According to papers from her divorce case in 2011, she was due to receive nearly $1,400 a month in child support and $500 in alimony per month for a year from her ex-husband, a real estate developer. She lived in an affluent neighborhood in Dallas in a high-end apartment building, former colleagues and acquaintances said.

The updated NBC News piece also notes that “The State Department and its Diplomatic Security Service, which helps vet appointees, did not respond to requests for comment.”
Oh, dang!
State and DSS are probably hoping that this story will just go away now that she had submitted her resignation. But there is something in this story that is troubling.  If it was this easy for her to get this position despite the now revealed holes in her resume,  how many more are there in Foggy Bottom who were hired under similar circumstances? And how exactly did Diplomatic Security “missed” um …  a few things that reporters were able to easily dig up? Is this a case of Diplomatic Security “missing” a few things or a case of the security bureau being “responsive” to the 7th Floor?
Perhaps more importantly, if it was this easy to get around these “holes” and get a deputy assistant secretary position (which typically requires years and years of experience for career appointees), just how hard could it be for foreign intel services to do the same?
Now, we’re not suggesting that Diplomatic Security investigates itself on how this individual got through its security clearance process,  or see if the bureau has systemic holes in that process. We think State/OIG or a congressional panel with oversight authority should look into it.

 

Related posts:
State/CSO DAS Mina Chang Resigns After NBC News Asked About Newly Discovered False Claims;
Dear @StateDept, How Many More Mina Changs Do You Have?

@StateDept Releases First Ukraine-Related Documents Under FOIA

 

The State Department is about to get inundated once more with FOIA requests.  Anyone anticipating an “FOIA surge” this time around? You may download the documents here, the first set in a court-ordered document production via American Oversight.
The November 1 court order from the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the State Department must search for and produce by November 22, 2019 records from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and counselor Ulrich Brechbuhl containing any readouts or summaries of President Trump’s July call with the President of Ukraine.
We’ve looked through a hundred pages of these newly released documents, and while the most notable are the telephone calls between Mr. Giuliani and the secretary of state (two calls referred to in the Hale deposition), there does not appear to be any documents specific to readouts and summaries of the July 25 call.
So, how soon do you think before we’ll see those documents?

 

Foreign Affairs Security Training Center (FASTC) Opens in Blackstone, Virginia

 

On November 14, 2019, Diplomatic Security tweeted a video of the formal opening of the Foreign Affairs Security Training Center (FASTC) located in Blackstone, Virginia.
According to state.gov, the Department of State, working with the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), conducted environmental studies at Fort Pickett, which showed that the site was suitable for FASTC. In 2015, GSA purchased property and secured land use agreements for approximately 1,400 acres of publicly held land. On February 25, 2016, construction began for the FASTC project.
The final FASTC construction update notes that Hensel Phelps is the general contractor responsible for building the third and final construction phase of FASTC. The venues for this phase include the High Speed Anti-Terrorism Driving Course (West), Explosive Simulation Alley, Venue Classroom buildings, Indoor/Outdoor Firing Range, Central Warehouse, Armory, Parking Area for Training Vehicles, and a Fitness Center. Turnover of the Contract 03 venues to the State Department reportedly began in summer 2019. The Armory, Warehouse, Mock Urban Driving Track and a Parking Area have already been turned over to State for their use according to the FASTC September newsletter.
According to Diplomatic Security, DSS will train roughly 10,000 students at FASTC, including DSS special agents, other Foreign Service personnel, other U.S. government employees assigned to U.S. embassies and consulates, and some foreign nationals.  The Foreign Affairs Counter Threat (FACT) course, required by Department of State personnel assigned to overseas posts was scheduled move to FASTC this year.
For more information about FASTC, visit https://www.state.gov/FASTC

Related posts:

State/CSO DAS Mina Chang Resigns After NBC News Asked About Newly Discovered False Claims

 

We recently posted about State/CSO DAS Mina Chang following an NBC News investigation (see Dear @StateDept, How Many More Mina Changs Do You Have?). NBC News reported on November 18 that Ms. Change has resigned from the State Department “two and a half hours after NBC News went to her spokesperson to ask about newly discovered false claims she had made about her charity work.”

Senior Trump administration official Mina Chang resigned from her job at the State Department two and a half hours after NBC News went to her spokesperson to ask about newly discovered false claims she had made about her charity work.

NBC News had previously reported that Chang, the deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stability Operations, had embellished her resume with misleading claims about her educational achievements and the scope of her non-profit’s work — even posting a fake cover of Time magazine with her face on it.

“It is essential that my resignation be seen as a protest and not as surrender because I will not surrender my commitment to serve, my fidelity to the truth, or my love of country,” Chang wrote in her resignation letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “Indeed, I intend to fight for those things as a citizen in the days and years to come.”

Chang said she had been “unfairly maligned, unprotected by my superiors, and exposed to a media with an insatiable desire for gossip and scandal, genuine or otherwise.”
[…[
The newly discovered false claims include misrepresenting a trip to Afghanistan as a humanitarian mission, listing an academic who says he never worked for her nonprofit as an employee, claiming a nonexistent degree from the University of Hawaii, inflating an award and claiming to be an “ambassador” for the United Nations’ cultural agency UNESCO.

Her bio page at state.gov now display a “We apologize for the inconvenience…” page.
We still want to know how she got to Foggy Bottom. That has implications not just with the vetting process but also Diplomatic Security’s security clearance process.

Dear @StateDept, How Many More Mina Changs Do You Have?

 

As far as we know, no one starts a job at the State Department without a security clearance. Diplomatic spouses working security escort or mailroom jobs are not even allowed to start work without a security clearance or an interim clearance.
So when NBC News Investigation reported that a senior political appointee at the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations — a deputy assistant secretary (she’s one of the top three senior bureau officials)  made false claims and exaggerations, we were wondering what this means to the thoroughness of the background investigations conducted by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security? Were the adjudicators aware of these issues prior to the issuance of the clearance? If not, why not? If yes, well, what in guacamole’s name happened here?

A senior Trump administration official has embellished her résumé with misleading claims about her professional background — even creating a fake Time magazine cover with her face on it — raising questions about her qualifications to hold a top position at the State Department.

An NBC News investigation found that Mina Chang, the deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stability Operations, has inflated her educational achievements and exaggerated the scope of her nonprofit’s work.

Whatever her qualifications, Chang had a key connection in the Trump administration. Brian Bulatao, a top figure in the State Department and longtime friend of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, attended a fundraiser for her nonprofit in Dallas and once donated $5,500 to her charity, according to a former colleague of Chang’s.

As of this writing, her biography is still up on state.gov. Her Twitter account appears to have disappeared but her Instagram account is still online. Back in July 2019, she was also rumored to be the next U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines, a report that was officially denied by US Embassy Manila.
The Diplomatic Security Service (DSS headed by Director Todd J. Brown), an office which resides under the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (headed by Michael T. Evanoff), under the umbrella of the Under Secretary for Management (headed by Brian Bulatao), conducts personnel security background investigations for the Department of State and other federal agencies. After determining the candidate’s national security eligibility, DSS contacts the appropriate hiring authority.
According to Diplomatic Security, the national security eligibility determinations take into account a person’s:
  • Stability
  • Trustworthiness
  • Reliability
  • Discretion
  • Character
  • Honesty
  • Judgment
  • Unquestionable loyalty to the U.S.
The organization she once served as CEO, Linking The World, has now posted a lengthy message on its website primarily defending its former CEO. It claims that “Mina has undergone 4 independent agency reviews, including the FBI, and ultimately garnered both Top Secret and Sensitive Compartmented Information clearances.”
Item #8 says:

Mina obtained her position at the State Department on her own merit, at no time was Brian Bulatao part of her nomination / recruitment / review process.  An auction bid from 2015, is a despicable example of correlation with no foundation.  Anyone who reads her online articles would know that she has both supported and been critical of the current administration.  

Career diplomat George Kent who serves as Deputy Assistant Secretary (DAS) in the European and Eurasian Bureau and testified on Wednesday at the Impeachment Hearings — now, he obtained his position as a DAS at the State Department on his own merit.
A political appointee gets  a job through a political connection. Ms. Chang is a political appointee; are we to understand that she got her job on her own merit by knocking on Foggy Bottom’s door?  Or did she apply through USAjobs.gov? Should be interesting to know how she got to Foggy Bottom.
According to Linking the World, Ms. Chang’s nomination was also “not withdrawn by the Administration of anyone other than herself.”

“Mina’s nomination was not withdrawn by the Administration, or anyone other than herself.  Simply, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has been rather busy with other activities and all nominees were subject to extensive delays.  Mina loves her position at State and decided to withdraw herself from the process to focus on stabilization operations.  Again, anyone who reviewed her recent past, with work in Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Somalia, would know that this decision makes absolute sense.

This is, of course, contrary to reporting and public records that indicate the nomination was withdrawn by the President.  Ms. Chang was nominated in 2018 to be Assistant Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, vice Jonathan Nicholas Stivers (see PN2528).  On January 03, 2019 the nomination was  “Returned to the President under the provisions of Senate Rule XXXI, paragraph 6 of the Standing Rules of the Senate.” The renomination was received by the Senate on January 16, 2019 (see PN115). On September 9, 2019, the U.S. Senate “Received message of withdrawal of nomination from the President.”
Deputy assistant secretaries do not require Senate confirmations. Appointments are typically not publicly announced.
So, now we’re left wondering if this case is an exception, or if there are any more cases like this in Foggy Bottom?

Pompeo Talks About the Only Two Active FSOs in Foggy Bottom’s Top Ranks, Yay!

 

The 70th Secretary of State talks about the only two active FSOs in Foggy Bottom’s senior ranks: the Under Secretary for Political Affairs David Hale and the Director General of the Foreign Service Carol Perez  Mr. Pompeo has so much respect for the career service that there are no active FSOs in the geographic and functional bureaus of the State Department.

Via state.gov:

QUESTION:  Last question on these hearings, Mr. Secretary:  A couple of news outlets have attempted to create a narrative that you are at cross purposes with career staff and morale is low at the State Department.  I know morale at the State Department because my son works there.  I always disclose that when I talk to you.  But your support for the career staff has never been in doubt in my mind.  What do you make of these stories?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  More Washington insider-y stuff, a long history of the press reporting about unhappiness at the State Department, especially, frankly, in Republican administrations.  The truth of the matter is my team, my senior team, which includes folks like David Hale and Carol Perez, very capable senior Foreign Service officers, are doing good work investing in the future of the institution, investing in our diplomacy, working hard to deliver good outcomes for the American people.  I’ll leave it to others to characterize morale.  It’s a big organization.  I’m sure there’s lots of different thoughts, but suffice it to say the American people should be comfortable knowing that we are continuing to do the hard work to deliver good policy outcomes for President Trump and the United States.

 

USDOJ: Armenian Citizen Pleads Guilty for His Role in For-Profit U.S. Visa Fraud Scheme

 

Via USDOJ:

Armenian Citizen Pleads Guilty for His Role in For-Profit U.S. Visa Fraud Scheme

A man residing in Glendale, California, pleaded guilty today to conspiracy to unlawfully bring in aliens and visa fraud for his role in a multi-year visa fraud scheme that brought Armenian citizens into the United States for profit.

Hrachya Atoyan, 32, pleaded guilty before U.S. Magistrate Judge Sanket J. Bulsara in the Eastern District of New York.  Sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 20, 2020, before U.S. District Judge Margo K. Brodie.  According to the indictment, Atoyan allegedly participated in a transnational network of co-conspirators who engaged in a widespread visa fraud scheme to bring Armenian citizens into the United States by fraudulently claiming to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) that the Armenians were members of performance groups, and thus qualified for P-3 “Culturally Unique Artist” visas.

“Exploiting the P-3 non-immigrant visa classification system for culturally unique artist and entertainers makes a mockery out of the legitimate performers for whom that visa was intended,” said Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division.  “We will work hand in hand with our law enforcement partners to rid the system of fraudsters, like Mr. Atoyan and his co-conspirators, who seek to take advantage of and profit from our immigration system.”

“Atoyan’s guilty plea brings down the curtain on an elaborate visa fraud scheme to falsely portray applicants as artists and entertainers in order to circumvent our country’s P-3 visa program,” said U.S. Attorney Richard P. Donoghue of the Eastern District of New York.

“The Diplomatic Security Service builds strong teams overseas and in the United States to protect the integrity of all U.S. visas and travel documents – especially those, like the P-3 visa, which allow for entertainers to visit the United States to perform in culturally unique events and deepen our understanding of different cultures,” said Todd J. Brown, Director of the Diplomatic Security Service.  “DSS values our partnership with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and other law enforcement agencies around the world to prevent and jointly combat U.S. passport and visa fraud. Deterring, detecting, and investigating U.S. passport and visa fraud is essential to safeguarding our national security.”

[…]

The P-3 nonimmigrant visa classification allows foreign nationals to temporarily travel to the United States to perform, teach or coach as artists or entertainers, under a program that is culturally unique.  A U.S. employer or sponsoring organization is required to submit a USCIS Form I-129 Petition for a Non-Immigrant Worker, along with supporting documentation, attesting that the performances in the United States are culturally unique.

In February 2018, Stella Boyadjian of Rego Park, New York; Atoyan; and Diana Grigoryan, aka “Dina Akopovna,” 42, of the Republic of Armenia were charged in a 15-count indictment with visa fraud and with conspiracy to: defraud the United States, commit visa fraud, and illegally bring aliens into the United States.  Boyadjian and Grigoryan were also charged with related money laundering charges, and Boyadjian was charged with aggravated identity theft.  Boyadjian previously pleaded guilty on March 4, 2019 in the Eastern District of New York.

As alleged in the indictment, Boyadjian ran a non-profit organization called Big Apple Music Awards Foundation (BAMA) based in Rego Park, New York.  Boyadjian used the Big Apple Music Awards Foundation as well as formal and informal music industry contacts in the United States and Armenia to perpetuate the scheme.  Atoyan, Boyadjian, and others solicited Armenian citizens who wanted to come to the United States and charged them between $3,000 and $10,000 to be included on the Form I-129 Petitions.  Boyadjian and other associates in Armenia then acquired fraudulent performer certificates and organized staged photo sessions where the aliens wore traditional Armenian folk outfits to make it appear as though they were traditional Armenian performers.  After being trained how to defeat U.S. visa interviews, the individual aliens presented these certificates and photos to U.S. consular officers during their visa interviews.  Once the Armenians entered the United States, some would pay Boyadjian and her associates additional money to be included in another fraudulent petition asking for P-3 visa extensions.  As alleged in the indictment, Atoyan himself came to the United States on a P-3 visa obtained in connection with a Form I-129 submitted by BAMA.

USEU Ambassador Gordon Sondland in the News: Drip …Drip … Drip…

 

U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, a Trump donor and a central figure in the Ukraine nightmare is scheduled to appear for a deposition on Thursday, October 17. As far as we could tell there are currently three streams of reporting concerning Sondland: Ukraine. the late breaking news of the renovation of the Chief of Mission Residence (CMR), in Brussels, and the reported ongoing boycott of his Portland-based hotel properties, Provenance Hotels. The Oregonian citing Oregon Public Broadcasting also said that “the popular local ice cream company Salt & Straw had severed its professional ties with Provenance, a chain of upscale hotels across the country, including six in Portland.”
We imagine that if his testimony is favorable to his boss, that we would likely see him tweeted as, oh, who knows … superman or the greatest ambassador ever. Or he could end up spending more time with his family. We should know soon.
WaPo on the $1 million official residence renovation:

The State Department defended the renovations, saying they were part of a “regular 17-year cycle of reviewing and refreshing furnishings and interior décor in representational residences.” The renovations were funded in April, after Sondland’s confirmation, a spokesman said. “Other minor renovations currently underway” were reviewed and approved by staff at the U.S. mission and funded in fiscal 2019, which began in October, after Sondland was confirmed.

Remember when a political ambassador was not pleased with the condition of the official residence mattress, or when embassy staff members spent several days to locate and purchase an umbrella for the official residence patio? Those were way cheaper than  a “family kitchen,” at a cost of just under $223,000. Not sure why he was not allowed to spend his own money. Anyone remember Ambassador Ronald Spogli and the $1.1M wine cellar donated to Villa Taverna in Rome? Also Ambassador Thomas Foley who reportedly spent $500,000 of his own money restoring the US ambassador’s residence in Phoenix Park in Dublin?
By the way, we’d like to know what other official residences are on State/OBO’s docket for renovations. These renovations are not unheard of but these are often scheduled years in advance. We’ve looked for the fiscal year projection for the USEU official residence in Brussels going back to FY2016, and so far have not been able to locate it.  But we see that the “major rehabilitation” of the Chief of Mission Residence Paris is on the expected to be awarded list for FY 2019. Cost for that should be interesting.

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