An Even Sorrier Spectacle: “Defending” the USA Pavilion

On March 8 Foreign Policy published “A Sorry Spectacle,” my reported essay on the serious problems, allegations, and questions, that have plagued the USA pavilion for Expo 2010 since the 2006 “request for proposal” [RFP] to build, design, and fund-raise the structure was issued in 2006. Yesterday, April 2, the Commissioner General of the USA pavilion, Jose Villarreal, offered what he characterizes as a “defense” of the USA pavilion effort in FP. I’ll get to his response in a moment. But first, the allegations, as outlined in my piece, are as follows:

  1. The State Department’s original RFP set the bar for building a pavilion so high that no reasonable bidder could be awarded the pavilion.
  2. After the failure of the RFP, the pavilion was awarded to two politically-connected individuals, Nicholas Winslow and Ellen Eliasoph, one of whom – Eliasoph – is related to a high-ranking Commerce Department official with oversight of China trade issues, in a non-competitive, no-bid process that was announced to the public only after its completion.
  3. When Eliasoph and Winslow were asked about the basis upon which they were awarded the pavilion, they gave contradictory answers [ie, someone isn’t telling the truth]
  4. USA pavilion Commissioner General Villarreal, who had nothing to do with the appointment of Winslow and Eliasoph, explained the Winslow/Eliasoph appointment by noting that “a lot of people aren’t there [at the State Department] anymore” and “a lot of what happened is kind of a blur.”
  5. The State Department’s Office of Inspector General has forwarded a private citizen’s complaint that touches on this selection process directly to the secretary of state’s executive office.
  6. The State Department’s noncompetitive authorization of Nicholas Winslow and Ellen Eliasoph means that the group’s architect and design weren’t subject to a competitive review, a highly unusual procedure in selecting any $61 million building [addendum 4/4: at the time the State department awarded the authorization to Winslow and Eliasoph, the building was budgeted at $84 million], much less one meant to represent the United States abroad.
  7. Eliasoph and Winslow raised almost no money from the time they were awarded the pavilion authorization, missed multiple construction deadlines, and, in the process, alienated large segments of the U.S. business community in Shanghai, as well as numerous Expo officials.
  8. In the spring of 2009, Chinese Foreign Ministry officials, concerned and frustrated by the faltering U.S. effort as led by Winslow and Eliasoph, were forced to make personal appeals to Clinton to fix the situation.
  9. The film featured inside of the USA pavilion was produced by long-time acquaintances of at least one of Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc’s founders [Winslow].
  10. Commissioner General Villarreal and others connected to the USA pavilion effort have declined to release the pavilion’s budget and books [though they are required to do so by IRS regulations governing non-profit entities like theirs].
  11. In two spring 2009 interviews, Nick Winslow informed me that he’d arranged a Chinese government loan for the purpose of keeping his group’s USA pavilion effort afloat.

Next, the unanswered questions:

  1. What was the process by which Nicholas Winslow and Ellen Eliasoph were chosen by the State Department to form the non-profit that became Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc., the organization responsible for the design, construction, and fundraising of the USA pavilion.
  2. What role, if any, was played by Ellen Eliasoph’s husband, Ira Kassof, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Asia at the Department of Commerce, and a former State Department official with close ties to the Shanghai Consulate, in the selection of Winslow and Eliasoph?
  3. What rules, if any, govern Eliasoph’s fundraising for the pavilion from US and Chinese companies with business interests that might be effected by official decisions from Kassof’s office.
  4. Did Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc., receive a loan – cash or in-kind – from a Chinese government entity in late 2008?

These are serious allegations and questions, and one would expect that Commissioner General Villarreal would be eager to address them in an essay characterized as a “defense” and a “rebuttal.” But he doesn’t. Rather, he ignores each and every specific allegation and instead spends his essay reciting PR points meant to prove that:

Contrary to what reporter Adam Minter wrote recently in his article, “A Sorry Spectacle: The Uninspiring Saga of the United States’ World Expo Pavilion in Shanghai,” the design and execution of the USA Pavilion has been not only impressive but inspiring.

Which is to say, Jose Villarreal’s real complaint with my March 8 piece in Foreign Policy appears to be with the sub-title, and not the substance.

I don’t know Jose Villarreal, but during the half-hour I spoke to him in March, I found him to be smart, engaging, and forthcoming. I always found myself sympathizing with his predicament: all but one of the above allegations (the outlier: a refusal to release the budget and books) occurred well before Villarreal was appointed to be Commissioner General. His job was (and is) to clean-up the mess, and – by and large – he’s done a very good job. Above all, he’s also done a spectacular job of raising the money that Eliasoph and Winslow couldn’t. It’s understandable, then, that he’d want to defend the pavilion that he – and not they – have built. That noted, Villarreal well knows that questions surrounding this building are serious, and that they should be addressed. My understanding is that they will be addressed by Villarreal after the Expo; in my opinion, they should be addressed by Villarreal now. In the meantime, I hope that whatever rebuttals and defenses that the USA pavilion offers in the future will do more than reiterate hopeful talking points.