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State Department official George Kent testified Wednesday that he would “love” to see Ukraine look into the circumstances surrounding the closure of a probe tied to natural gas firm Burisma Holdings, while also raising concerns that Hunter Biden’s role on the board of that firm created the appearance of a conflict of interest.
During questioning by GOP counsel Steve Castor at the first public hearing of the House impeachment inquiry, Kent was asked about the Ukrainian investigation into Burisma Holdings and why it was closed.
Kent testified that it was his and other officials’ “strong assumption” that the founder of the firm, Mykola Zlochevsky, had stolen money, and that a prosecutor had taken “a bribe to close the case.”
Castor asked Kent whether he was in favor of that matter “being fully investigated and prosecuted.”
“I think since U.S. taxpayer dollars are wasted, I would love to see the Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office find who the corrupt prosecutor was that took the bribe and how much was paid,” Kent answered.
Kent, though, was not saying he wanted an investigation into Burisma over Hunter Biden’s role, and testified that he did not witness any U.S. officials working to protect that firm from criticism or investigations.
The Biden family’s actions in Ukraine, along with a separate issue connected to 2016 election interference, were at the core of what Trump wanted investigated out of Kiev. Trump’s now-famous July phone call – in which he pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to launch the investigations – prompted a whistleblower complaint and, in turn, the impeachment inquiry in the House. The president’s request came after millions in U.S. military aid to Ukraine had been frozen, which Democrats and some witnesses have cited as a quid pro quo arrangement.
To that backdrop, Hunter Biden’s actions occasionally were discussed in Wednesday’s opening hearing, though not at length.
In Ukraine, meanwhile, the Burisma investigation isn’t entirely closed. Last month, Ukraine’s current prosecutor general, Ruslan Ryaboshapka, said at a news conference that his office was instructed to review cases that have been closed to make sure they were fairly and thoroughly handled — including the probe into Burisma. That announcement did not mean that Ukraine was opening a new investigation into Burisma or the Bidens.
Kent told congressional investigators last month during his closed-door deposition that he had repeatedly raised concerns with the Obama administration about Burisma, and also discussed the administration’s efforts to remove Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin from his post. At the time, Shokin was investigating Zlochevsky.
Shokin was fired in April 2016 and the case was closed by the prosecutor who replaced him, Yuriy Lutsenko. Joe Biden once famously boasted on camera that when he was vice president he successfully pressured Ukraine to fire Shokin.
Biden allies, though, maintain that his intervention had nothing to do with his son, but rather was tied to corruption concerns.
At the time, as vice president to former President Obama, Biden was running U.S.-Ukraine policy, and anti-corruption campaigns.
Kent also said Wednesday that the vice president’s role in Ukraine was “critically important” and was “the top cover to help us pursue our policy agenda.”
Kent said that he raised concerns with the former vice president’s office in 2015 that Hunter Biden’s role on the board of Burisma could present “the possibility of the perception of a conflict of interest.”
U.S. top diplomat in Ukraine Bill Taylor also testified on Wednesday and said for the first time that the president was overheard by a member of his staff on July 26 asking EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland about “the investigations,” to which Sondland responded that “the Ukrainians were ready to move forward.”
Taylor said that following Sondland’s call with Trump, the member of his staff asked what Trump thought about Ukraine.
“Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for,” Taylor said, revealing new information from his prior testimony last month. “At the time I gave my deposition on October 22, I was not aware of this information. I am including it for completeness.”
This conversation would have taken place a day after the phone call between Trump and Zelensky. Taylor made clear it was his understanding the term “investigations” indeed referred to the Biden family and Burisma.