Hunter Biden is facing legal trouble on multiple fronts, but it’s been an unorthodox journey to get here. Attorney General Merrick Garland will answer questions this week about the investigation into President Joe Biden’s son, where the spotlight will be ultimately on how much Joe knew about his son’s business dealings. In this series, Wayward Son, the Washington Examiner will investigate how we got here. Part One will examine how Hunter Biden’s failure to register as a foreign agent has made him vulnerable to further prosecution.
Hunter Biden’s felony gun indictment Thursday and looming tax violations may be just the beginning of his legal troubles, as the Department of Justice weighs criminal charges over the first son’s failure to register as a foreign agent.
DOJ said as much during a plea hearing in July when a federal judge explicitly asked if the government could charge President Joe Biden’s son under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
She based her question on Hunter Biden’s income from foreign companies that had been documented in a plea deal related to the gun and tax crimes.
Leo Wise, a federal prosecutor, replied to the judge that “yes,” the president’s son could still be charged with a FARA violation. A defense attorney responded by disagreeing with Wise, contributing to the plea deal’s eventual collapse.
FARA is a 1930s-era law originally intended to prevent the spread of Nazi and communist party propaganda in the U.S. It requires Americans working as “agents of a foreign principal” to disclose to the government certain lobbying and public relations work on behalf of foreign entities.
If convicted of willfully failing to register as a foreign agent under FARA, a person could face up to five years in prison, up to a $250,000 fine, or both.
Hunter Biden held a lucrative position on the board of a Ukrainian energy company in 2014 and communicated with the Obama White House in his capacity as a board member. He worked on behalf of a Romanian real estate tycoon while appearing to meet with the U.S. ambassador to Romania. Congress has released evidence that reveals a similar pattern of business relationships may have existed in other countries as well, including China, Russia, and Kazakhstan.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who uncovered one of the most serious but unproven allegations against Joe and Hunter Biden involving the pair accepting a multimillion-dollar bribe, called last week’s gun indictment a “start,” but added, “Now what about FARA money laundering and bribery?”
Witness testimony and emails suggest Hunter Biden leveraged his connections in the U.S. government to help his foreign clients, but he has never made public disclosures to the DOJ about that work.
“He doesn’t want people to know that he’s involved with these different individuals and foreign nationals,” an aide for the House Oversight Committee observed. “He doesn’t want to be public about it, and if you register under FARA, it becomes fairly public.”
The resurgence of FARA
FARA, a once dormant law, saw a burst of activity during special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation when the DOJ hit a slate of Trump associates with the charge.
Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, for instance, were convicted in 2018 over the same type of tax and lobbying offenses of which Hunter Biden has been accused. While Gates received a relatively light sentence, Manafort received the maximum of 60 months in prison for a FARA conviction. He served about two years behind bars before Trump pardoned him in 2020.
Manafort and Gates “funneled millions of dollars in payments into foreign nominee companies and bank accounts, opened by them and their accomplices in nominee names and in various foreign countries,” according to their indictment.
Similarly, Michael Flynn, a Trump national security adviser, admitted as part of a plea agreement to violating FARA by making false statements about work he did on behalf of Turkey. Trump pardoned Flynn before he could be sentenced, however, and the case was dismissed.
The cases echo accusations IRS and FBI whistleblowers have made that Hunter Biden, for example, took millions of dollars he received from working in Ukraine and filtered them through companies run by his associates.
While earning $83,000 per month from Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, Hunter Biden had multiple conversations with a State Department official responsible for energy policy.
In November 2015, Hunter Biden met with Amos Hochstein, who was then the special envoy and coordinator for international energy affairs at the State Department. The meeting took place just one month before then-Vice President Joe Biden was slated to travel to Kyiv.
Hunter Biden and Hochstein remained in contact as Joe Biden’s trip grew closer, emails show.
Records released recently by the National Archives and Records Administration show that Joe Biden’s communications team secretly relied on Hochstein to help spin Hunter Biden’s Burisma work to the media. Joe Biden’s trip to Ukraine in December 2015 sparked media scrutiny of Burisma.
Kate Bedingfield, who at the time was Joe Biden’s communications director, asked reporters from two different outlets who were writing stories about Burisma to have off-the-record conversations with Hochstein, who she said could provide “some unique and valuable perspective on these relationships,” according to emails.
‘Bad for his father’
Optics may have been one reason Hunter Biden never registered with the government.
“I think he knew that his father was engaged in different policy areas overseas, as well as speaking on behalf of anti-corruption publicly, and I think it would have been bad for his father,” the Oversight aide said.
If Hunter Biden had to register with entities “who were either being accused of fairly corrupt activity, or the companies were known to be corrupt, and then his father’s over there giving speeches about anti-corruption, I think those two things do not work well in the political sphere,” he added.
Hunter Biden also arranged for others to plead Burisma’s case before U.S. government officials, also without registering under FARA. Burisma at the time was facing a corruption investigation in Ukraine and seeking greater acceptance from the West.
He asked Burisma in 2014 to hire a Democratic lobbying firm, Blue Star Strategies, to handle some of the outreach to the Obama administration officials that he did not personally undertake.
Blue Star Strategies executives aggressively lobbied the State Department on behalf of Ukrainian interests, according to emails released in 2020 by Senate Republicans. Those emails show that, by 2016, Blue Star Strategies counted Yuri Lutsenko, the Ukrainian prosecutor general who took over for the prosecutor Joe Biden had fired, as a client.
Lutsenko went on to shut down the years-long investigation into Burisma, another Blue Star Strategies client.
But Blue Star Strategies did not register under FARA at the time of its work for Burisma and Lutsenko. David Weiss, the federal prosecutor recently named special counsel, and the DOJ reportedly investigated Blue Star Strategies’s lobbying for Burisma in 2021 and the firm’s executives filed a FARA disclosure in 2022.
No explanation has ever been provided as to why Blue Star Strategies was permitted to file a FARA disclosure years later without facing consequences for failing to register.
FARA investigation was ‘held back’
Gary Shapley, an IRS whistleblower, told Congress this spring that a prosecutor named Lesley Wolf, who works in Weiss’s office, told investigators that they would not receive approval for a search warrant of Blue Star Strategies’s emails, which Shapley said was “a significant blow to the Foreign Agents Registration Act piece of the investigation” into Hunter Biden.
Based on Shapley’s testimony, that was one of several investigative steps that could have been taken but were not, and complex FARA cases require diligence.
“You need to meet with a lot of witnesses. You really need to go full steam ahead, and here we have an investigation that appears it’s been held back,” the Oversight aide said.
After being investigated for potential FARA violations, Blue Star Strategies was forced to disclose that it had arranged a meeting with Hochstein on behalf of Burisma.
Another issue surrounding the FARA aspect of the DOJ’s investigation is its five-year statute of limitations, which would typically exclude Hunter Biden’s business activity prior to 2018. In some FARA cases, suspensions, or “tolls,” on the statute have come into play, and as one congressional attorney with a FARA background observed, prosecutors likely see a “hook” if they are keeping FARA on the table.
Additionally, the DOJ reportedly weighed giving Hunter Biden an off-ramp by forcing him to file retroactive disclosures the way the department appeared to with Blue Star Strategies, but the department’s failed attempt last year to do that with casino giant Stephen Wynn calls that option into question.
Popoviciu paid Hunter Biden and his business partners $3 million, bank records show.
After Hunter Biden and his business partners met repeatedly with Klemm, the ambassador helped arrange a meeting for them with Romanian prosecutors, emails show.
At the time, Hunter Biden and his associates were tasked with helping Popoviciu avoid prosecution for corruption in Romania.
Attorney General Merrick Garland, who has come under pressure for DOJ’s refusal to enforce FARA against Hunter Biden, will appear before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday for an annual hearing. Republicans are expected to grill Garland on the matter, but the attorney general will likely defer to the department’s longstanding policy that it does not discuss nonpublic information about ongoing investigations.