Lies, Damned Lies, and the US Pavilion at Expo 2010.

Based upon queries of my blog, and queries from US media outlets, it seems that US reporters are finally taking an interest in Expo 2010 and the oft-troubled project to build a US pavilion (Shanghai Scrap reporting on the issue, here). As for the latter topic, the interest is overdue: as of January 4, 2010, the private group authorized by the US State Department to design, fund-raise, and build the US pavilion has not yet finished the fund-raising – despite the fact that the Expo begins in 118 days. In early 2009, the situation was so dire that the Chinese government made high-level appeals to Secretary of State Clinton, who has since undertaken some of the fund-raising herself.

And so, this weekend the New York Times gives us “For Shanghai Fair, a Famous Fund-Raiser Delivers,” in which the authors – Mark Landler and David Barboza – correctly report that Secretary Clinton’s played a crucial role in securing pavilion funding, and thus preventing a major diplomatic rupture with China. At the same time, they document the State Department’s careful vetting of Clinton’s fund-raising role, including its determination that – due to her position – she “could not solicit private donations herself.”

This is a compelling story for those who follow the US pavilion, but it is also a seriously incomplete one – as the reporters who worked on the story surely know. So let’s be clear here: the reason that Clinton had to become involved at all is because the private group authorized to design, build, and fund-raise the pavilion had – by early 2009 – shown themselves to be completely incapable of accomplishing what they’d been authorized to do by the State Department. Barboza and Landler blame this failure on the economic crisis, the Olympics, the US election and State Dept restrictions prevented a solid effort. But what they don’t acknowledge is that – by early 2009 – the members of the USA Pavilion, Inc [the legal entity is known as Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc) had alienated a vast swatch of the expatriate business community in Shanghai (“arrogant” and “abrasive” are common adjectives used in regard to the members of USA Pavilion, Inc), numerous potential US corporate donors, and even high-ranking members of the Chinese government. For example, in Spring of 2009, Ellen Eliasoph, a USA Pavilion co-chair, told NPR that an interest-free loan from the Chinese government to pay for the pavilion was “on the table;” shortly thereafter, a high-ranking Expo/Shanghai official repudiated the suggestion in the state media (not long after, a chastened Eliasoph repudiated herself in the Washington Post). Problems like these, as much as anything, required Clinton to designate Jose Villarreal, a charismatic fundraiser from San Antonio, to rescue the pavilion effort, present a fresh face to donors, and serve as a Commissioner General.

So why should it matter now?

Eliasoph is married to Ira Kasoff, the Assistant Deputy Undersecretary of Commerce for Asia, one of the US government’s most senior officials involved in trade access issues, and Eliasoph has been involved in USA Pavilion fund-raising from the beginning. This fact may be unknown to Barboza and Landler, but it is well known in Beijing, and in Shanghai Expo circles, where rebukes to the spouses of US officials are not taken lightly. Likewise, it is certainly the case that the US and Chinese companies solicited for pavilion funds by Eliasoph are aware of her personal relationship to Kasoff. Whether that relationship has made any difference into whether or not those companies donated to the pavilion is a question only they can answer. But it would have been nice – if not journalistically sound –  if Barboza and Landler had bothered to tell this side of the story (after all, perceptions matter in diplomacy), instead of presenting a narrative suggesting that Clinton and her friends are the only fundraisers involved in the pavilion project. That’s simply not the case. At a minimum, a proper account of the mistakes made by Eliasoph and USA Pavilion is essential to preventing a similar debacle in the future. Clearly, the New York Times can’t be counted on to provide it.

In the end, the New York Times piece is puff that reads like a press release for an organization – USA Pavilion – desperate to shift media attention away from its murky, incompetent origins. But for those who follow USA Pavilion closely, many if not most of its problems can be traced to those origins. The fact that USA Pavilion has gone to great lengths to avoid answering questions about its “no bid” selection, and continues to obfuscate the facts surrounding it, should be a signal to reporters – like Barboza and Langler – that there’s something amiss.

An example: at USA Pavilion’s official site, under the “Facts” tab, the group presents its preferred version of how it was selected [the text below is a screen capture]:

Now, a reasonably intelligent reader might take away two natural inferences from this official account of events. First, “Shanghai Expo 2010″ participated in the lengthy bidding process; and second, US Secretary of State Rice and Mayor Han Zheng of Shanghai provided letters of support to the group during the bidding process. But both inferences would be false. First, the “lengthy bidding process” lasted from 2006 to 2007 – and failed to select a pavilion group. Most important: Winslow and Eliasoph did not participate in that lengthy bidding process. Instead, they were chosen in March 2008 – after the formal process had concluded without a pavilion team. No explanation has ever been given as to how they were selected (though a widely circulated rumor suggests that Kasoff – who has long-standing contacts in Shanghai and the State Department – played a role in securing the pavilion for his wife’s group). Second, the group did, in fact, receive a letter of support from Secretary Rice – roughly three months after their selection. Likewise, Mayor Han offered his support in September 2008 – 6 months after the group’s selection.

It is worth noting that this isn’t the only instance of the USA pavilion group selectively presenting limited US government action as a wholesale endorsement of their efforts. Most notoriously, Frank Lavin, the former US Ambassador to Singapore, former director of the US International Trade Administration, and Chairman of the USA Pavilion steering committee falsely claimed that a Congressional resolution introduced by a former impeached federal judge constituted Congressional “endorsement” of the US pavilion and the group’s efforts – despite the fact the resolution has almost no Congressional support to this day.

Efforts by other reporters to ask about these incidents have been met with silence (State Department), temper tantrums, and, in one notable case, threats of retaliation. Barboza and Landler clearly didn’t have to deal with any of that; here’s hoping that other reporters will try harder.

[More on this subject come Monday ... ]

20 thoughts on “Lies, Damned Lies, and the US Pavilion at Expo 2010.

  1. Waiting for the next installment of Shanghai Expo 2010: How Miscreants and Goofballs Came to Roam in the USA Pavilion.

  2. We were a little worried that you’d lost your edge after that 141 Christmas tree post. Glad that you haven’t lost a taste for a knife fight after all.

  3. Overall, a nice article, but is my math getting weak with old age?

    How is a letter written in September 2008 computed to be 18 months after a March 2008 selection of the company to head the project?

  4. Mark – Actually, I think it’s my math that’s getting weak with old age. Which is to say: thank you for catching that, and I’ve made the correction!

  5. Adam, after reading your article, I checked into Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc.’s background and history, especially its organization and financial structure. My investigation revealed … nothing. There’s nothing online that’s publicly accessible, not from the group and not from the State Department or any other agency.

    It’s not clear why Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc., was selected or why it migrated this year from DC, where its incorporation was voided because it didn’t file necessary papers, to Pasadena. It’s not registered with the State of California, at least online. (I could be wrong. Someone more knowledgeable about these things should verify my sparse “findings.”)

    Also, I couldn’t Google any mention of “USA Pavilion” except on the group’s own webpage and now in the NYT article. For those who want to see for themselves, it’s still “Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc.), so far as I can tell.

    Lastly, didn’t I read somewhere or hear in local scuttlebutt that the US government can fund US participation in Expos but chose not to? That runs counter to the NYT article’s claim that it can’t, hence the need for Clinton’s auction of the US Pavilion, etc., etc.

    What’s the actual law on this? If the US Government could fund the US Pavilion but chose not to, someone should tell activist Fred Wertheimer, cited in the NYT article, that he’s been misled. Hmmm…?

  6. I think Wertheimer and others are letting Clinton off WAY too easy for her own fundraising on behalf of this. Private companies should only fund government projects through their taxes, not through excess donations. It’s a huge conflict of interest for Hillary to do be doing this and Wertheimer, shame on him, should know better.

    As for the private foundation and the dpty asst. sec at commerce – this is the sort of petty corruption that was endemic to the Bush Administration and it’s very sad that Clinton instead of cleaning it out decided to tolerate it for expediency’s sake.

  7. Adam,

    You are absolutely correct that the Shanghai USA Pavilion was not a participant in the submittal of responses to the State Department’s Request for Proposals that appeared in the Federal Register in November of 2006 and was allowed to lapse a year later.

    My records of that process are at your disposal.

    Barry Howard
    BH&L Group

  8. First rate blogging. Thanks for doing what the NYT and other reporters are too lazy to do. You’re read by more than you probably think.

  9. Excellent research and writing. I’ve followed this issue ever since you first mentioned it. Great work. The US State Department and the NY Times are a total embarassment on this one.

  10. 1. This is building up to an “Atta boy Brownie” moment.

    2. The world outside of China, and especially ordinary Americans, are getting a really good at how the overall expat community operates in China.

    3. I hope the whole endeavor fails spectacularly.

  11. I had no idea this was happening, and I appreciate your muckraking skills. I found the article in the NYT which led me to Google the subject, thus finding your blog. This matter is an embarrasment to the USA and a loss of face for the Chinese. Sometimes I ask myself, “Is this really happening in the USA? How do I explain this to my Chinese friends here?”

  12. Interesting. All politics and no action. No wonder they couldn’t get any funding.I am sure there is more to it and few dedicated souls are actually trying to get something tangible in place. Love to hear if they will actually get a US pavilion up. At this point.. maybe they can just plant a lawn and have some boyscouts sing songs around a campfire.

  13. It would be nice if the Congress would just allow the US Govt to fund pavilions as a normal part of our diplomacy (which it is) instead of forcing us to go through these fundraising nightmares every few years. And you overestimate the stroke a Commerce Dept official has with anyone in the State Dept (and vice versa). And while the chosen group may have done a bad job or been hamstrung by lack of funding, you should also mention that Eliasoph had a long history of high level business experience in China with Warner etc. She doesn’t need to rely on her husband to get her a job.

  14. Great post. My first job out of college was working at the 1985 World’s Expo in Tsukuba, Japan. That was when the US still funded these sorts of events through the United States Information Agency. It is a pity and disgraceful that the US military budget is $800 BILLION a year yet we cannot even fund a simple pavilion.

  15. Jay, Kasoff is a former chief commercial officer in Shanghai. He has lots of State experience and connections. Second the issue isn’t if Eliasoph can get a job on her own but rather how she was able to obtain the authorization for the US pavilion outside of a federal RFP process. That’s a very serious issue.

  16. I for one am pleased that US taxpayer dollars won’t be wasted on the perennially dodgy China expat community and China contractors to build this pavilion. Otherwise, all $61 million would have been spent and there would still be no pavilion.

    Let the expat community burrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrn.

  17. Some people seem to think there’s big bucks to be made organizing a US Pavilion. I wouldn’t wish that task on anyone. Most people who will willingly place themselves between a government agency, businesses and a foreign government are not doing it for the money. Because there isn’t any – but if you want to take shots from all angles and love stress it’s great for that I’m sure. I sure wouldn’t do it or wish it on anyone that wasn’t my enemy.

  18. Come off it, Jay. Those guys said they were getting into it to make a buck and if they didn’t, it’s they’re own fault. Their organization is set up to pay no taxes, to pay no shareholders, to control all the revenues, and make a fortune in visitor spending at the “US Mail” — and they have the Secretary of State herself to effect a fundraising “bailout.” Stop with the alligator tears.

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