The Ukraine state-owned natural gas company caught up in President Donald Trump’s impeachment investigation has appointed a U.S. businessman pushed by former Energy Secretary Rick Perry to its board, two people with direct knowledge of the decision told POLITICO on Thursday.
Houston-based oil and gas executive Robert Bensh is set join the board of Naftogaz, pending final paperwork, the two people said, adding that his appointment has drawn opposition from some other board members. They said the move has led at least one of them, Amos Hochstein, to prepare to resign.
The Ukraine government informed Naftogaz last week that it had approved Bensh, two people with knowledge said.
The appointment adds to questions about Perry’s role in Ukrainian energy politics and whether the former Texas governor had pressured the government there to buy U.S. energy supplies to win favor with the Trump administration. Perry, as first reported by POLITICO, had originally pushed Naftogaz to accept Bensh and another Perry associate, Texas oil and gas executive with ties to Ukraine, Michael Bleyzer, onto its board.
More recently, Time.com and WNYC-ProPubliica on Thursday reported that federal prosecutors had probed Perry‘s efforts to broker a $20 billion contract for a company called Louisiana Natural Gas Exports to deliver U.S. liquefied natural gas to Naftogaz. The report said Bensh had promoted the company as one that the Ukrainian government could hire to deliver natural gas to the country.
Louisiana Natural Gas Exports did not own any assets or produce gas at the time it was seeking the contract, and instead sought to obtain the gas from a Houston-based company called Energy Transfer Partners. Perry served on the board of Energy Transfer before joining the Trump administration and returned to that role shortly after stepping down last year.
One person with direct knowledge of the probe confirmed to POLITICO that federal prosecutors in New York had looked last winter into whether Perry pushed the Ukraine government to sign the contract with Louisiana Natural Gas Exports. Time.com reported that the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York has since dropped the probe. The prosecutors’ office did not immediately reply to POLITICO’s request for comment.
The Ukrainian government had wanted to replace Hochstein with Bensh last year “as a deliverable” to Perry and Trump, the person added, but backed off amid the political turmoil that erupted after POLITICO reported that the Trump administration was withholding military aid to Ukraine to force the government there to announce an investigation into Biden’s son Hunter. That pressure from the White House prompted Democrats to launch their impeachment into Trump.
Time.com said the Ukrainian government balked at signing a $20 billion contract with Louisiana Natural Gas Exports because of concerns about its management. It later dropped the discussions after Perry stepped down and U.S. presidential election polling made it unclear whether Trump would win a second term, the news site reported.
Spokespeople for the Energy Department and Energy Transfer Partners did not immediately return requests for comment. Bensh declined to comment on the record.
A spokesperson for Perry criticized the report as “a continuing effort to create a story that doesn’t exist. It’s just another failed attempt to rewrite history, this time two months out from a Presidential election. Time should be ashamed of publishing this ridiculous story.”
Louisiana Natural Gas Exports also in June 2020 sent a letter to the Turkey-U.S. Business Council in Istanbul, pitching itself as a possible supplier of liquefied natural gas to that country, according to a filing under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
“We welcome the opportunity, under the leadership of President Erdogan and by working with [the council], of being part of the enhancement of Turkey’s strategic energy supply through increased imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the United States,” LNGE Chief Executive Ben Blanchet wrote.
Louisiana Natural Gas Exports did not immediately reply to a phone call seeking comment.