How could this happen? A Reporter’s Guide to the USA Pavilion Debacle at Expo 2010.

Over the last two days I’ve received a sudden and unusually large number of emails and phone calls related to the USA pavilion at Expo 2010. Combined with the growing number of negative and caustic reviews of the structure, I’m sensing that more than a few people are looking for an explanation as to how the United States managed to build a pavilion that commentators at Huffington Post have compared to – among other things – “a supply storage shed,” “a temporary NASA administrative building, circa 1970,” and “a combination Bose Sound System/Air Purifier.” I’m going to use this post as a brief guide for reporters and anyone else interested in finding out more about how this happened, as well as a brief guide to what questions still need to be answered and who might be able to answer them.

But first – if you’re looking for a quick route to understanding how the US arrived at its current pavilion, let me humbly suggest “A Sorry Spectacle,” my March 8, 2010 piece for Foreign Policy. In it, I give a concise chronology of events, the key players, issues, and documents. Additional source documents showing the total lack of qualifications of the team selected to manage the US pavilion can be found on my blog, here. What that article and those documents won’t tell you is how a Canadian architect was chosen to design the US pavilion, much less who was responsible for signing off on the  selection. Alas, the State Department refuses to answer questions on that subject. So, what follows, after the jump, is a rough chronology of the early stages of the US pavilion – the period when the design and selection would have been finalizes – with additional links to relevant documents and stories, on the evolution of the US pavilion to help reporters get their bearings, and perhaps provide some leads along the way.

  • 1990s – Congress restricts the US State Department’s ability to appropriate funds for the building of an Expo pavilion without express authorization from Congress. Relevant law, here, with amendments. Henceforth, the United States will depend upon private sector fund-raising to sponsor its participation in World’s Fairs/Expos.
  • December 3, 2002. China awarded Expo 2010.
  • February 2006. Premier Wen Jiabao issues a formal invitation to the United State to attend the Expo.
  • At some point between February and July 2006, the State Department prepares an Action Plan and Timeline for U.S. Participation at World Expo 2010, Shanghai, China. The Action plan was obtained by FOIA in March 2010 and is available at the end of this lengthy blog post.
  • August 2, 2006. Dina Habib Powell, acting Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, responds to Wen’s invitation in a letter to then US Ambassador Zhou Wenzhong. In her response, she assures Zhou that “the United States intends to participate in the Shanghai Expo” but that “our ability to make a final commitment will be contingent on our success in identifying a private sector partner able to provide all funding necessary for the US pavilion and its operations.” Notably, Habib Powell mis-spells Wen Jiabao’s name as “Jiaboa.”
  • November 8, 2006. The State Department issues a formal Request for Proposal [RFP] seeking an organization or individuals to manage “Fundraising, Construction, Development, Organization, and Management of a US pavilion at the World Expo 2010, Shanghai, China.”
  • September 7, 2007. The State Department narrows the list of bidders to a single group that includes architect Frank Gehry.
  • November 30, 2007. The State Department rejects the final bidder for, among other reasons, “failure to produce a credible plan to fund a U.S. pavilion.” The RFP concludes without a winning bidder.
  • December 2007. Ellen Eliasoph, a lawyer with Covington & Burling, and wife to Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Asia, Ira Kasoff, contacts Nicholas Winslow, a theme park consultant in California who had worked on past Expos, and suggests that they make a bid for the US pavilion at Expo 2010. Eliasoph had no prior Expo experience; Winslow had worked on several.
  • January 2008. Winslow travels to Shanghai where he meets with US Consular staff (several of whom are personally acquainted  and had worked with Kasoff), Brenda Foster, the president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, and members of the local Expo Bureau.
  • January or February 2008. Winslow and Eliasoph meet with US State Department staff in Washington, D.C., including Lea Perez, Director of the Office of Citizen Exhanges, and James Ogul, a grants officer at the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, in regard to taking over the dormant US pavilion process. There was no public notification that State Department employees had, de facto, re-opened the RFP.
  • March 19, 2008. C. Miller Crouch, acting Assistant Secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs, issues Winslow and Eliasoph an official Letter of Intent [LOI] “to develop and implement your ideas” for a US pavilion at Expo 2010. The LOI was accompanied by a memo indicating “issues to be addressed” prior to the State Department signing a final agreement with Eliasoph and Winslow and, by extension, the Shanghai Expo authorities. Among the issues that were most pressing: the need for a fundraising plan, a pavilion design, and a corporation (rather than just Winslow and Eliasoph as two private individuals). Notably, these deficiencies were precisely the issues that were the basis for the rejection of the bid that included Frank Gehry.
  • March 2008 – October 2008. Canadian Clive Grout, and long-time associate of Winslow, is hired as architect to the US pavilion. BRC Imagination Arts, whose CEO and founder Bob Rogers is a long-time friend of Winslow’s, is hired to do the pavilion programming. Neither selection is open to public review. Winslow and Eliasoph manage to raise less than $2 million of their proposed $84 million budget. Personality conflicts with the expat business community and an underwhelming design hamper fundraising efforts in Shanghai, itself.
  • October 27, 2008. Winslow and Eliasoph withdraw from the USA pavilion process explaining, in an email, that “our effort to create and execute a world class USA Pavilion for Shanghai Expo 2010 was, from the outset, hampered by a shortage of both time and money.  Both have now run out and we are shutting down the enterprise, effective immediately.”
  • November 2008 – Spring 2009. In the wake of the Winslow-Eliasoph resignation, at least one of the rejected bidders from the original RFP approaches State, the US Consulate in Shanghai, and the American Chamber in Shanghai with a lower-cost (around US$20 million), American-designed pavilion. Another, local expat initiative is also generated.
  • November – December 2008. According to two interviews that I conducted with Winslow, Shanghai government provided a loan to resuscitate the Winslow-Eliasoph effort, and to provide for “technical aspects of the pavilion structure.”
  • December 2008. Winslow and Eliasoph announce that they were resuming their troubled stewardship  of the USA pavilion.
  • January 2009. Winslow-Eliasoph miss State Department Action Plan deadline to have funds in hand and begin construction.
  • January – June 2009. Intensified pressure on US Consulate and State Department officials to either revoke the Winslow – Eliasoph authorization or force the beleaguered due to collaborate with a more experienced group. Grassroots effort commenced in Shanghai expatriate community to produce a low-cost alternative pavilion.
  • February 10, 2009. Winslow-Eliasoph present an updated plan to the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai. In it, they claim that they’ll have all $61 million of funding in place by April 2009.
  • February 24, 2009. In light of increasing opposition to the Winslow-Eliasoph team and design in Shanghai, Beatrice Camp, US Consul General in Shanghai, issues a letter of support to the group. The net result of the letter is to deflate momentum for alternative plans and designs then being prepared in Shanghai and the United States.
  • March 2009. Ellen Eliasoph tells National Public Radio that the Chinese have offered her group an interest-free loan to pay for the US pavilion. Questions are raised in Washington and Shanghai as to whether such a loan – and Eliasoph’s role in the US pavilion – creates a conflict of interest for her husband’s US-China trade-related work at the US Commerce Department.
  • March 30, 2009. Hillary Clinton sends a letter to Brenda Foster, President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, expressing her support for Winslow-Eliasoph. The correspondence is released to the public, effectively killing off any alternative pavilion plans then being developed in Shanghai and the US.
  • April 2009. Winslow-Eliasoph fail to meet their self-imposed April fund-raising deadlines, reportedly raising only $1.5 million of their $61 million budget. They also miss their self-imposed deadline to begin construction and confirm US participation in the Expo. The reasons for the failed fundraising effort are explained here.
  • Late Spring 2009. The Chinese Foreign Ministry makes personal appeals to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to take control of the situation in Shanghai, and confirm US participation in the event.
  • May 7, 2009. The highly influential China Youth Daily runs an editorial on the US pavilion and warns, in regard to the Expo: “If America is absent, it will damage American interests in China.”
  • July 1, 2009. Clinton appoints Jose Villarreal to serve as the Commissioner General to the US pavilion, and the two of them begin an earnest fund-raising effort that – unlike the Winslow-Eliasoph effort – nets significant financial support (according to Villarreal, 95% of the pavilion funds were raised after his appointment).
  • July 10, 2009. The US officially confirms participation in Expo 2010.
  • July 17, 2009. Groundbreaking ceremony at the US pavilion site.

So what are the outstanding questions related to the USA pavilion building?

  1. Who at the State Department authorized Winslow-Eliasoph, and why? The State Department and the US Consulate Shanghai have both refused repeated requests to answer this very simple question.
  2. Who at the State Department signed off on the use of a Canadian architect for the USA pavilion and, specifically, Clive Grout’s design? Unlike almost every other pavilion at the Expo site, this very basic information – who made the selection – has never been revealed despite repeated requests. Who was the selection committee? Who is responsible?
  3. Why did the leadership of the US Consulate Shanghai continue to lend strong support to the Winslow-Eliasoph team despite the fact that there were lower-cost and better alternatives being developed in the US and Shanghai? Did long-standing relationships between Consular staff and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce Ira Kasoff, husband to Ellen Eliasoph, play any role in the decision-making?
  4. The USA pavilion effort is managed for the US government by a non-profit 501c3 corporation that has, so far, refused to disclose its accounting and expenditures, including fees paid to architects, designers, and fund-raisers. When will it release this information?

I’m sure that others will have additional questions related to the USA pavilion. However, these, to me, strike as the most pertinent for understanding how the US ended up with such an underwhelming pavilion. Next, who is in a position to best answer them? In addition to Winslow and Eliasoph, I’ll offer the following names (there may be others):

  • Kenneth Jarrett. Former US Consul General, Shanghai, currently a vice-chairman of APCO Worldwide, and a current board member of the USA pavilion’s board of directors (formally, Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc). Jarrett was US Consul General at the time that Nick Winslow first approached the State Department and the Consulate with a proposal to manage the US pavilion, and served during the run-up to the October 2008 Winslow-Eliasoph resignation. After leaving the Consulate for the private sector, he remained highly supportive of the Winslow-Eliasoph bid.
  • Beatrice Camp, Consul General, Shanghai. Camp arrived in Shanghai a few weeks before the Winslow-Eliasoph resignation. After the December re-emergence of the Winslow-Eliasoph group, she became a strong advocate and defender of the group despite strong opposition and concern across the US expatriate community in Shanghai, hostility from Shanghai organizers, and considerable evidence that Winslow and Eliasoph were incapable of securing the funding on their own.
  • Thomas E. Cooney, public affairs officer for the US Consulate Shanghai, and Deputy Commissioner General, USA Pavilion. Cooney’s tenure in Shanghai straddles Jarrett’s and Camp’s, and he has been intimately involved in the USA pavilion process from the beginning. Indeed, he has been Winslow-Eliasoph’s most steadfast and stubborn Consular defender, and was actively involved in dissuading alternative USA pavilion proposals during the Winter and Spring of 2009, when the Winslow-Eliasoph proposal was faltering most seriously.
  • C. Miller Crouch, former acting Assisstant Secretary of State for Educational Cultural Affairs, and the individual who signed the LOI with Winslow and Eliasoph.
  • James Ogul, former grants officer in the Educational and Cultural Affairs Bureau of the State Department. Ogul was deeply involved with USA pavilion efforts at past expos. He was the contact for the failed RFP, and was reportedly involved in decision-making related to the ad-hoc selection of Winslow-Eliasoph.
  • Lea Perez, former Director of the State Departement Office of Citizen Exchanges. Perez was the designated “primary contact” for Winslow and Eliasoph as they developed their fundraising and design plans for the pavilion.

Just as I’m sure there are more questions surrounding the USA pavilion, I’m just as sure that there are more names of people who can be tied to it. But these are the ones that appear to be most closely tied to the ill-advised and murky selection of Winslow-Eliasoph, and the even more disastrous defense of Winslow-Eliasoph when it was eminently clear that their design, theme, and efforts were sub-standard, riddled with contracts for personal friends and acquaintances, and lacking support among Americans in China.

I think it’s also worth noting that all of these individuals – all of them – are or were career Foreign Service Officers. That fact shouldn’t be taken as a strike against FSOs (I know many, many good and conscientious FSOs), but it should be taken as a warning about what can happen when un-elected bureaucrats are left room to maneuver by Congressional, public, and media ambivalence. To be sure, Congressional action limited the State Department’s ability to fund a US pavilion; but it’s also the case that the critically-derided USA pavilion design and programming is the collective responsibility of several career FSOs who defended and advocated for it. Somebody should tell that story.

[Note on comments. I’m going to continue my practice of disallowing comments to my recent USA pavilion posts, largely based upon my unwillingness to provide a forum for FSOs and others connected to the USA pavilion to defend themselves and attack me anonymously. If and when the State Department, the Shanghai Consulate General, and Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc (the non-profit managing the USA pavilion) get around to answering my legitimate questions about the pavilion, I’ll get around to re-opening the comment threads.]