No proof Biden or Kerry channeled U.S. aid for Ukraine to Burisma

Former Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden listen to President Barack Obama answer questions on Ukraine on March 3, 2014, at the White House in Washington. (AP/Monsivais)
Former Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden listen to President Barack Obama answer questions on Ukraine on March 3, 2014, at the White House in Washington. (AP/Monsivais)

In a testy exchange on the talk show "Outnumbered," Fox News host Steve Hilton accused his colleague and former State Department official Marie Harf of covering up for corruption.

The accusation came after Harf, who worked for former Secretary of State John Kerry, said Hilton had "no evidence" to back a series of unsubstantiated claims he made about Ukraine.

The fiery back-and-forth stole the headlines, but we were more interested in two of the claims that prompted Harf’s challenge in the first place. 

Defending President Donald Trump against impeachment, Hilton said investigations should be launched into the last administration, starting with former Vice President Joe Biden. 

"He supervised billions of dollars of aid that went from the U.S. taxpayer to Ukraine," Hilton said of Biden. "Much of that went to Burisma, a gas company that was paying his son."

Turning to Kerry, Hilton said the former secretary of state also had connections at Burisma. 

"They hired John Kerry’s former chief of staff, while he was secretary of state, paid him money from Burisma, could’ve come from the U.S. taxpayer," he said. "That money is circled back to Democratic senators, who then write to the administration for even more money to be sent to Burisma. All of that needs to be investigated."

In a statement to PolitiFact, Fox News pointed to four TV segments where Hilton explained his theories at length. But we found no proof that Biden directed any aid earmarked for Ukraine to Burisma. And while the gas company did hire lobbyist David Leiter, Kerry’s former Senate chief of staff, there’s no evidence that any money was channeled in the way Hilton claimed.

There’s no proof that U.S. aid money went to Burisma

Hilton’s first claim — that U.S. aid dollars sent to Ukraine under Biden’s supervision went toward Burisma, where Biden’s son Hunter was a board member — is unsubstantiated, experts told us.

"It’s indisputable that aid went to Ukraine's energy sector," Fox News said in its statement. "No one knows how much, if any, Burisma specifically got as that has not been reported. It’s about investigating possible corruption and exposing it."

Trump and his allies have charged, without evidence, that Biden forced Ukraine to remove its lead prosecutor in order to protect his son from a then-dormant investigation into Burisma. The idea that Biden actively funnelled money to Burisma is also baseless, experts said.

"I can see no way that USAID money has gone to Burisma," said Anders Åslund, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. 

"I am not aware of Burisma receiving any U.S. funds," added Yoshiko Herrera, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who previously headed the university’s center for Russia, East Europe and Central Asia.

Ukraine has been a leading recipient of foreign aid since Russia’s 2014 invasion, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. Data from the United States Agency for International Development indicates that the United States disbursed about $1.28 billion to Ukraine between 2014 and 2016, with roughly $53 million going to its energy department.

The United States also sent separate $1 billion loan guarantees in 2014, 2015 and 2016. And a 2014 law authorized $50 million to be sent between 2016 and 2018. 

But the context is critical. After Russia invaded in 2014, the international community stepped in to bolster the new western-leaning government

Money directed to Ukraine’s energy sector was to help Ukraine scale back its dependence on Russia for energy sources by making it more energy efficient, according to the Congressional Research Service, which noted that the United States provided "technical assistance."

To that end, the 2014 law authorizing additional funds took specific steps toward "helping Ukraine reduce its dependence on natural gas imported from the Russian Federation."

A November 2014 White House fact sheet said the United States was working with international donors to help Ukraine boost energy efficiency and supporting Ukraine’s efforts to enhance energy production and restructure its state-owned gas company, Naftogaz, among other things.

There’s no evidence that any of this aid or support went directly to Burisma, nor is there evidence that Joe Biden worked to guide it there.

"All this money went to the Ukrainian government," Åslund said. "None of it went to Burisma."

There’s no proof of wrongdoing by Kerry or Democratic senators 

Hilton’s second claim — that a Kerry associate paid off Democratic senators to orchestrate the transfer of money to Burisma — is also unsubstantiated.

What’s true is that David Leiter, a lobbyist hired in 2014 by Burisma, served as Kerry’s chief of staff for seven years while Kerry was a senator for Massachusetts. Kerry spokesman Matt Summers said Leiter left the office in 1997, 16 years before Kerry became secretary of state. 

But the rest of Hilton’s claim, which alleges a sequence of money transfers and bribes meant to line Hunter Biden’s pockets, is an unsupported take on a series of unrelated events.

In short, Hilton’s claim is that taxpayer money flowed from the United States to Burisma, from Burisma to Leiter, and finally from Leiter to Democratic Sens. Ed Markey and Jeanne Shaheen, who then pushed President Barack Obama to send more money Ukraine’s way.

The conspiracy hinges on the fact that Leiter was hired by Burisma in 2014, while he was working as a registered lobbyist at a firm called ML Strategies. Lobbying disclosure forms show that ML Strategies took in $90,000 for Leiter’s work with the Ukrainian company.

Hilton has alleged that Leiter used this money to pay off Markey, Shaheen and others, who sent a letter to Obama on June 27, 2014, urging his administration to "leverage the full resources and expertise of the US government to assist Ukraine in improving its energy efficiency" for the sake of "eliminating its dependence on natural gas imports from Russia."

In a statement to PolitiFact, Shaheen’s office pointed out that two weeks before the letter was sent, Russia had cut off all gas exports to Ukraine, a detail the senators noted in their letter. 

But the biggest problem with Hilton’s timeline is that the bulk of Leiter’s donations to the Democratic senators who penned the letter came before he was hired at Burisma.

According to Time, Leiter signed on to lobby for Burisma on May 20, 2014. He sent multiple donations to both Markey and Shaheen, but not one coincided with his stint lobbying for Burisma. 

For what it’s worth, Shaheen’s office also noted that the senators’ goal — as expressed in the letter — was to reduce Ukraine’s gas consumption and make the country more energy efficient, which would have been at odds with Burisma’s ability to maximize profits.