The Gun Almost Smokes: Two once-secret documents related to the USA Expo 2010 pavilion

Over the next two days, representatives of the USA pavilion for Expo 2010 (ie, the 2010 World’s Fair) will be rolling-out the USA’s building and programming for the event, to open May 1. Tomorrow, Tuesday, media will have the opportunity to interview members of BRC Imagination Arts, the company that produced the “4-D” film to be shown inside of the pavilion. And on Wednesday, the pavilion and the film will be presented to invited media at noon. In addition, Commissioner General Jose Villarreal will submit to a Q & A. I have been invited to attend the Wednesday event, and I plan to report on it at Shanghai Scrap, and elsewhere, in the hours following. This post, I hope, will be of use to the other reporters who will join me on Wednesday, and precede me tomorrow.

As regular readers know, for the last year I’ve written extensively about the travails of the USA pavilion at Expo 2010, beginning with this March 2009 piece in the Atlantic, through more than a dozen blog posts, and a March 2010 piece in Foreign Policy. At the heart of my reporting and critique has been this: the individuals whom the US State Department entrusted – in the words of the Department itself – to “design, instruct, install, and manage a U.S. Government pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World’s Fair and to raise all funding required for the project” – were chosen in a no-bid non-competitive process that wasn’t open to the public, and which resulted in a woefully un-qualified USA pavilion team that has, over the last two years, caused diplomatic tensions with China, failed at its chartered tasks and – most significantly – built a sub-standard pavilion that won’t necessarily embarrass the United States, but certainly won’t show it in its best light, either.

Alas, the State Department, the Commerce Department, and the individuals associated with Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc., the non-profit serving as the State Department’s designated pavilion, have been reluctant to answer questions about the selection process and have, at various points, lied about it. Nonetheless, perseverance pays off, and last month the State Department, at the request of a concerned citizen, and with the encouragement of Jose Villarreal, the pavilion’s Commissioner General, released several previously secret documents which illuminate previously murky aspects of the USA pavilion selection process. I’m going to use this post to set the context for these documents, present excerpts from them, draw some conclusions, and then – at the end – post them for the use of anyone interested in how the USA wound up with the pavilion that’s going to be presented to the media tomorrow and Wednesday.

So let’s get to it.

In August 2006, Dina Habib Powell, the Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, informed then Chinese Ambassador to the United States Zhou Wenzhong, that the US “intends to participate in the Shanghai,” but due to laws restricting the US government from spending money on Expos, “our 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.” Three months later the State Department published a “Request for Proposal,” [RFP] soliciting individuals, non-profits, and companies, to submit proposals to design, build, fund raise, and manage a USA pavilion in Shanghai. The criteria were tough, and by the end of the process, in Fall 2007, there was only one bidder remaining: the BH&L Group, with Frank Gehry as their architect. Nonetheless, despite its superb pedigree, in December 2007 the State Deparment  informed BH&L that its fund-raising and design concepts were inadequate. Thus ended the RFP.

What happened next has long been shrouded in secrecy, but – thanks to the March 2 release of several documents as a result of a citizen’s Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] request – some aspects of it have finally begun to emerge from the muck. The most important of these is a memorandum attached to a March 19, 2008 letter from C. Miller Crouch, then the acting Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs. Among other matters, the memo – officially, “The Issues to be Addressed Prior to Signing a Memorandum of Agreement” clearly shows that the State Department was in active contact with Ellen Eliasoph and Nick Winslow, two private citizens who had worked together at Warner Bros., in regard to a USA pavilion after the end of the formal RFP process in December 2007 [attached to the end of this post]. The letter attached to the memo has previously been released, and is known as the LOI, or “Letter of Intent,” authorizing Eliasoph and Winslow to begin formal work on a US pavilion, including fund-raising. It makes clear that a final agreement – the Memorandum of Agreement – including a participation agreement with Shanghai, is contingent upon Winslow and Eliasoph raising all necessary funds for a pavilion. But the previously withheld memo, and not the letter, is the real point of interest here. To show why, I’d like to highlight a few passages from it highlighting just how woefully unprepared Eliasoph and Winslow – two private citizens, only one of whom had experience with an Expo pavilion – were to assume the task that State had just awarded them. What follows are just a few of the issues that the “Issues to be Addressed Prior to Signing a Memorandum of Agreement” required – after the fact. That is, after they’d already been authorized:

And, turning the page:

Take note: the failed RFP had required that proposals for the USA pavilion include a “[D]etailed fundraising plan listing intended individuals and institutions to be approached, description of donation and sample donation agreement.” Even more significant, the RFP’s review criteria – that is, the grounds by which a winning proposal would be judged and selected – included this item: “Proposals must also present a credible fundraising plan to fund all aspects of the U.S. Pavilion project.” For reasons that aren’t yet clear, the State Department decided to drop this requirement now that it was no longer soliciting in a formal competitive process. Why did they drop the bar for Winslow and Eliasoph? Well, clearly, because someone at State was determined to authorize Winslow and Eliasoph despite the fact that they couldn’t meet the RFP requirements. Next:

The USA pavilion, at the time of this letter, was estimated to cost in the range of US$85 million. Nonetheless, according to the above, the State Department was, apparently, perfectly comfortable authorizing two unincorporated individuals to start raising this sum in the name of the US government despite having no management structure and no idea who, in fact, would be involved in the exercise. Next:

How to interpret this? Well, aside from the fact that the State Department finds it necessary to remind Winslow and Eliasoph that “the design of each Pavilion has been a critical element in the overall success” at Expos, it seems as if Winslow and Eliasoph were awarded the USA pavilion without having much of an idea themselves – never-mind the State Department – about what they were going to do with and in it. Now, some may argue that everything turned out fine, so it doesn’t matter (and some may argue otherwise). But, the point is, the Winslow and Eliasoph design was never subject to any competitive review prior to the State Department authorizing it. They could have – and pretty much did – whatever they wanted to do with little to no input from the US government. And that’s one reason that the United States pavilion features the work of a Canadian architect (one publicly averse to doing what he characterizes as an “architectural handstand” for the USA). Presumably, if an outside review had taken place, a US architect would’ve been given the commission. Next:

The natural inference here is that the US State Department awarded the USA pavilion to two individuals who failed to submit a detailed budget for how they would spend $85 million. More than that, though, it’s another instance of the State Department lowering the bar for Winslow and Eliasoph. Only months earlier, the RFP had required all proposals to include a “[D]etailed budget showing breakdown of budget items required for each aspect of the project development and implementation.” Furthermore, the RFP indicated that applicants would be judged partly on”a proposed action plan and timeline for all aspects of the project with associated budget estimates.” Again, for reasons that aren’t clear, State decided that such requirements didn’t apply to Winslow and Eliasoph. Why? Well, quite obviously, they wouldn’t qualify, and somebody was determined that they would qualify.

To summarize, then: the US State Department authorized two private citizens to design, build, fund-raise, and manage its (then) US$85 million Expo 2010 pavilion despite the fact that they lacked a corporate structure, a fund-raising plan, a budget, a time-line, a completed architectural plan, a refined theme – and did so in a secret no-bid process that is only now coming to light.

So the question becomes: Why? Why did the State Department do this?

Of the two principals in this story, Nick Winslow is the one with at least some Expo pavilion experience. He’s also a theme-park consultant by day and, arguably, that’d be enough to qualify him to work with somebody on the pavilion. Ellen Eliasoph, on the other hand, is a lawyer who speaks Chinese, ran the China branch of Warner Bros., and has – according to my research, at least – no Expo experience whatsoever. So why, then, did Winslow need Eliasoph rather than, say, an architect by his side? In Shanghai, at least, many argue that her husband, Ira Kassof, Assistant Deputy Secretary of Commerce for Asia, where he oversees trade access and other issues related to China, is more valuable than an architect when it comes to securing federal contracts. Kassof, prior to working for Commerce, was a long-standing foreign service officer whose tours of duty included extended periods in East Asia, including Shanghai.

So what was his role? Over the last year I’ve asked the State Department, the Commerce Department, Commissioner Villarreal, and a member of Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc., whether or not Kassof and/or the Commerce Department played any role in the USA pavilion – selection, programming, or otherwise. In all cases, I’ve been provided with the same answer: Commerce has nothing to do with Expo 2010 (Commissioner Villarreal told me he’d seen no “shred” of involvement by Kassof). And this should be true: by law, Commerce is only to be involved in Expos that are held in the United States. Those held abroad are the responsibility of the State Department.

So get this:

The FOIA request that produced the above-cited memorandum also included a request for the “Action Plan for US Participation in the Expo 2010.” In return, the State Department returned an undated, unclassified document entitled “Proposed Action Plan and Timeline:  U.S. Participation at Workd Expo 2010, Shanghai, China.” And, despite official pronouncements to the contrary, it clearly indicates that the Department of Commerce was involved in the planning and selection of a US pavilion from the very earliest stages of the process. Below, the proposed timeline (never met) for selecting and refining a pavilion proposal. In it, “DoS” refers to the State Department and DoC refers to the Commerce Department.

Was this the process by which the USA pavilion was selected? No, maybe, and no. No, in the sense that this time-line was never met. Maybe, in the sense that DoC and DoS may have been involved in the selection process – even though, as both Commerce, State, and Shanghai Expo 2010 have insisted, Commerce has no role in foreign Expos. And no, again, in the sense that the pavilion was chosen completely outside of this time-line and process, as described, above. But, as someone who has reported on this debacle for more than a year, I find myself wondering why all parties involved continue to insist that Commerce has no role in the USA pavilion. Clearly, at some early stage in the process (the key selection stage, for goodness sake), it did. Either the people involved in the process didn’t know this, or they don’t want to know this.

And that compels both State and Commerce to stop playing games and start answering some questions. The documents that I’ve cited in this blog post were requested in January 2009; they were only released on March 2, 2010. And that release, I might note, happened only because Commissioner General Jose Villarreal personally set in motion the process by which they were produced. Had he not acted, they’d still be locked in file cabinets at the State Department. Combined with what was already known about the USA pavilion, they suggest some level of wrong-doing, if not criminality, and they demand follow-up, now. Specifically, we need to know:

  • Who made the decision to authorize Winslow and Eliasoph, and why?
  • Who are the members of the “DoC – DoS working group” mentioned in the Action Plan, and what role did they have in the selection of Winslow and Eliasoph?
  • Are Winslow and Eliasoph filing regular financial reports, every 90 days, as originally required in the 2006 RFP? If not, why not?
  • Under IRS regulations, the books and accounting of Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc. must be open to the public. Are they? And if not, when will they be?
  • Who, if anyone, in the federal government signed off on the selection of Clive Grout to be the architect of the USA pavilion?
  • Who, if anyone, in the federal government signed off on the selection of BRC Imagination Arts to produce the film inside of the USA pavilion?
  • How much is BRC Imagination Arts being paid for the film it is producing for the USA pavilion?
  • Does BRC Imagination Arts maintain the copyright to the film, and does it have plans to license it, and has it licensed it already, to entities other than the US pavilion?
  • If licensing takes place, will Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc, Nicholas Winslow, Ellen Eliasoph, or Frank Lavin [current Chair of the USA pavilion] benefit in any way?

Over the next two days, media will have ample opportunity to ask these questions and others. I hope that they will. To help with the exercise, I’m posting the Proposed Action Plan and the “Issues to be Addressed” memo, below.

First, the Proposed Action Plan [click to enlarge all pages].

[UPDATED 4/7: I’ve received a couple of emails in regard to the hand-written notation “*Ira Kassof” on the first page of the Action Plan. That notation was added by me, while taking notes on the documents. It was not there when received from the State Department. When I scanned it, I overlooked the notation. If this caused any confusion or mis-direction, I apologize.]

And, next, the “Issues to be Addressed” memo:

[Note to my valued, regular readers: I know I promised this was the last post on this topic. Bear with me.]