The Secrets of the US Expo 2010 Pavilion

We are now less than two weeks away from the deadline for the US to begin construction on a stand-alone pavilion for Expo 2010. And, according to Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc., the group authorized to finance, design, and build the US national pavilion, things are looking up. Reportedly, Hillary Clinton has made supportive phone calls to potential corporate donors, and KFC/Pizza Hut has responded with a significant financial commitment.

But even with these relative successes, the pavilion effort still appears to be in trouble. The authorized group has been less than forthcoming about its fund-raising efforts, but according to what they’ve told other media outlets, they’re currently sitting on roughly 10% of the US$61 million that their proposal requires.

A few weeks ago I wrote a primer on the authorized US pavilion group’s failure to raise money. Of the four areas that I outlined, perhaps the most consequential remains the inexplicable veil of secrecy that the authorized US pavilion group, and the US State Department, have thrown over the process to fund the US pavilion. Specifically, both parties have declined offers to reveal the “Action Plan” that governs the fundraising and other activities of the authorized pavilion group. Why does this matter? By any measure, the US Expo 2010 pavilion effort has been – so far – a financial and diplomatic failure of the first order, alienating US corporations, key members of the Shanghai government and – reportedly – angering high-levels of the Chinese government. Presumably, the “Action Plan” has governed the actions of the State Department officials, and private authorized-pavilion organization, that have placed the US in this awkward position. Making it public might not fix the situation, but it surely would go a long way toward explaining it.

Thus, back in January, an interested US citizen filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the action plan, and the Letter of Intent [LOI] authorizing the US pavilion group to begin work on the national pavilion (there remain many unanswered questions about the murky circumstances under which that LOI was obtained, as well – some background, here). Below, an image of the request (click for an enlargement).

FOIA_request

Since then, a State Department official personally turned over the LOI to the requesting citizen. However, the “Action Plan” remains hidden from public view; the State Department and the authorized group will not release it (I’ve also made separate requests from both parties). Late last week, the citizen who made the FOIA request contacted State for an update. On June 11, he was told that “it takes an average of 333 days for a case to be processed.” Which means, if the request is approved, we might know by Thanksgiving (late November) the rules under which the authorized US pavilion group are/were operating.

Just to be clear: this isn’t a top-secret document. It’s not a torture memo (those were obtained via FOIA requests, by the way); it’s not a national security briefing. It is a set of rules governing a pavilion for a fair. So why on Earth won’t the State Department and/or the authorized group consent to its release?

In the absence of any insights into the rules under which the authorized committee is operating, the expat business community in Shanghai is buzzing with rumors about conflicts of interest and the presumed financial interests of the various parties involved in running Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc. Among other matters, some are questioning the propriety of pavilion co-chair Ellen Eliasoph soliciting US – and, especially, Chinese – corporations for donations while her husband – Ira Kassoff, Deputy Undersecretary of Commerce for Asia – continues to work on trade and market access issues related to China and the United States. Some of these concerns could be resolved if the State Department and/or Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc would consent to release action plan which – presumably – contains information on the kinds of restrictions that the authorized must follow in its fundraising. How are donations screened? And are there any conflict of interest provisions in the Action Plan?

At this point, presumably, the authorized group and its State Department overseers are playing for time, hoping that somebody – or something – makes a donation that allows them to begin construction and thus put behind them any questions about their efforts and methods. Certainly, the Chinese Foreign Ministry and Hillary Clinton will be relieved if that happens. But among other key constituencies – including the US businesses operating in China that have refused to join Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc.’s effort, and key members of the Shanghai organizing committee – the memories of this often unscrupulous effort to represent the United States in Shanghai won’t soon be forgotten.

10 comments

  1. The ONLY reason not to release this document is that it has the potential to damage careers. What I don’t understand is why an FSO would put his or her career at risk to help a recent Covington partner.

    No question that the Kassoff relationship is a conflict. He or she should step down. But I doubt that anybody will do anything to encourage it. Not worth the trouble unless it becomes a bigger story. Typical DC BS.

  2. I am sorry to see Ira dragged into this mess. He’s above board and the last kind of guy to get involved in a conflict of interest.

  3. Hmm… I see it coming now. China must save face by making the Shanghai Expo a success, and a US pavilion is an essential ingredient to call that a success. The US State Department declared its support for pavilion, and failure to get financial support cannot, therefore, be blamed on the US government. So, by the deadline, some Chinese companies, probably registered in the US, or subsidiaries in US of Chinese companies, will come up with the money. This will be a win-win solution. The Chinese companies gets the eternal gratitude from the Chinese government, US gets a pavilion, and Shanghai EXPO is a great success, with the backing from the evil empire.

  4. What are you Americans complaining about? The US pavilion is the perfect representation of your country, already. Led by bankrupt liars running around China with tin cups begging for financing. Perfect!

  5. I don’t really care what happens, I’m just glad the US is committed to not spending any money on the expo. The only rationalization seems to be “well the US government wastes lots of money, what’s $60 million more?” Expos are dead as a cultural or economic force, and the US shouldn’t donate $60 million to underground Chinese political squabbles between Shanghai and Beijing. Furthermore, there’s a difference in $60 million spent on tax breaks, economic incentives, or welfare, and the US government sending $60 million on a one-way trip to China.

    Yeah it really is too bad the FOIA doesn’t have a 3 day turnaround on requests. But perhaps the author has never been to a DMV, he seems to detect scandal at the thought of a government office not moving with extreme swiftness.

  6. Gedled Sun Baby – You misunderstand: the problem isn’t the length of time required to fulfill a FOIA request. It’s that such a request is necessary at all in this instance. It’s a pavilion for a fair, not a torture memo. Why the secrecy?

  7. The committee should just take the money they have, put up a giant tarp, grill everything that Americans eat at picnics, set up badminton and vball nets, a softball area, a horseshoe pit and get a box of frisbees all while blasting rap, reggae, bluegrass and classic rock. A few people will bring in dope as this always happens and everyone will get shitfaced and sunburned by the end of each day and have a great time.

  8. @Grrrrrr.

    American’s aren’t begging for money, the organization behind the Pavilion is to protect their already shadowed careers.

    The US government doesn’t finance Expo buildings. Especially in a recession, we’re more worried with supporting our citizens than building shiny buildings.

    Do the low-income and poor of China benefit from the expo?

  9. Great news! I’m so glad the U.S.plans to participate in the World’s Fair in Shanghai, China 🙂 It needn’t cost lots of money. Just do the best with what is raised, and I wish to thank all those who support it! I’ve met a lot of really nice Chinese people thru the years and though I’m a blue-eyed blonde, I can speak a lot of Mandarin Chinese. Their name for us means “beautiful country people” It is my hope that we will always be loving and caring people towards all the world’s people as best as possible and participate frequently in these special events 🙂

  10. Please people don’t be ingnorant. There is Chinese, US and even International funding poured in to the US Pavilion. Looking for sponsors they say…hahahaha…I know a lot providers that help build up the USA pavilion that are getting paid…and getting paid fat!

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