When long-time Clinton confidante Ambassador Joe Wilson appeared in a political advertisement endorsing Hillary Clinton for president in 2008, he assured voters that she would "get the job done." Three years later, he was looking for Clinton to help him get his job done, when he asked the then-secretary of state to help his new employer — the American energy company Symbion — to win a US government energy contract in Africa.
Details of the back and forth between Wilson and Clinton are now public thanks to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit filed by VICE News senior investigative reporter Jason Leopold that forced the State Department to release Clinton's emails during her tenure as Secretary of State. The State Department released the most recent batch of emails Wednesday and the latest document dump provides new insight into how far Clinton was willing to go to help promote Wilson's business interests in Africa.
As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton maintained a protracted correspondence with Wilson, then a consultant for Symbion Power an energy company that specializes in risky markets like Iraq, Afghanistan, and, recently, Sub-Saharan Africa. Beginning in 2009, Wilson lobbied Clinton on behalf of his company's business ventures in Africa, and at one point even asked the secretary of state to phone the CEO of General Electric (GE) to help resolve a business dispute.
The emails show that the correspondence between Clinton and Wilson began with an introduction from Clinton's ubiquitous advisor and confidante, Sidney Blumenthal, who emailed Clinton nearly every day during her tenure as secretary of state with links to articles, personal anecdotes, and geopolitical analysis.
In the fall of 2009, just months after Wilson landed his new job at Symbion, Blumenthal asked Clinton to make time to meet Wilson at the African Business Summit in November, 2009 — the details of that meeting are difficult to fill in and the State Department would not comment on what if anything the two discussed
Weeks after the meeting, Blumenthal forwarded Clinton a detailed note from Wilson, where he began to pitch his energy company.
At that point, Wilson already had deep political ties with the Clintons. During his second term, Bill Clinton tapped Wilson as a special assistant and Africa advisor to the National Security Council. Wilson and his wife, the ex-CIA agent Valerie Plame, later became minor-heroes in the Democratic party for their public disputes with the Bush administration over the intelligence that helped make the case for the invasion of Iraq.
Wilson and Plame endorsed Hillary for president in 2008, and starred in a television spot, "Strongest Plan," that urged voters to choose Clinton over Barack Obama in the Democratic primary. The couple also hit the campaign trail with Clinton in Pennsylvania.
Wilson's pitch to Clinton, sent on October 6, 2009 touted Symbion as a do-gooder energy company that delivered both profits and much-needed infrastructure development to developing countries.
"I am now working with a serious American engineering and construction company, Symbion Power, that has been hugely successful in Iraq and Afghanistan," Wilson wrote. "Symbion's competitive advantage is its reliance on local partnering and human capacity development in the execution of its projects. Its success in the most difficult and dangerous environments has been very impressive."
Wilson then suggested Clinton watch a four-minute promotional video for Symbion that Blumenthal had passed along to Clinton in a previous email that has apparently not yet been made public.
Near the end of the email it comes clear why Wilson found it necessary to inform the secretary of state about the merits of his new employer.
"[We] have already begun work on a training center in Tanzania, where we will be bidding on all of the upcoming MCC financed power generation and distribution projects," he writes.
The MCC — or Millennium Challenge Corporation — is a quasi-governmental body run out of the State Department that awards infrastructure grants to developing countries. The Secretary of State serves as the chair of the MCC board. Before Wilson got in touch with Clinton, his company had never won an MCC grant in Africa — but less than a year after his pitch, Symbion won a $47 million energy contract in Tanzania to expand and rehabilitate power distribution networks — the same contract Wilson mentioned in his email.
An MCC official, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the subject, assured VICE News that, to the best of their knowledge, the secretary played no role in the MCC contract.
"We are not aware of any communication between MCC and the State Department on this procurement," the official wrote VICE News in an email, adding that Symbion won the contract on the merits.
What role, if any, Clinton played in Symbion's obtaining the MCC contract is not clear. The MCC committee in Tanzania that made the final decision has since been dissolved, its documents are not publicly available, and the contents of Clinton's responses to Wilson have not been made public. Though Clinton and Wilson corresponded about setting up a face-to-face meeting in Washington DC, the State Department would not comment on whether a meeting took place and what if anything Wilson and Clinton may have discussed. Symbion would not comment specifically on the email correspondence between Wilson and Clinton leading up to the MCC contract.
Clinton did attend the groundbreaking event at Symbion's Dar es Salam plant in June, 2011 alongside Wilson's boss Symbion CEO Paul Hinks and MCC CEO Daniel Yohannes. She didn't mention Wilson in her remarks.
Symbion and Wilson have since severed their ties and are involved in a legal battle over Wilson's $20,000 a monthcompensation. Wilson sued Symbion for breach of contract in September, claiming Symbion owed him 13 monthly payments.
In documents filed in a federal court in New Mexico, Symbion claims that Wilson's influence peddling techniques cast the company in a bad light. His "efforts to cultivate powerful figures in Washington for his own benefit have caused embarrassment to Symbion and its managers," Symbion claimed in the court documents. The company also said Wilson "boasted that the Secretary of State decided to visit Symbion [power plant in Tanzania] because of her friendship with him."
State Department officials told VICE News that the interactions between Wilson and Clinton were completely above-board.
"Department of State officials receive communications from a wide variety of stakeholders as part of the routine work of managing foreign affairs," State Department Spokesperson Alec Gerlach wrote in an email. "There is no restriction against an employee receiving communications from lobbyists for foreign governments or others."
Clinton and Wilson's' correspondence did not end after Symbion won the contract. The latest batch of emails released on Tuesday show that Wilson continued to lobby Clinton for years after MCC awarded Symbion the $47 million deal.
In July 2011 Wilson emailed Clinton and asked her to intervene in a business dispute between Symbion Power and GE. He encouraged Clinton to get in touch with GE's CEO Jeff Immelt and go to bat for Symbion in what appears to be a byzantine dispute over equipment rights.
In the email, Wilson expressed foreknowledge of a call Clinton planned to place to Immelt, and requested that: "when you make that call, I would appreciate your telling him that Symbion, which is already operating a GE plant in Dar can only expand that plant to meet the challenge if GE is prepared to share some of the inherent risk." He then asks Clinton to push Immelt to "waive the payment guarantee requirement," on equipment that his company planned to buy from GE.
Again, the State Department has not made available Clinton's response to Wilson. In fact, the State Department appears to have tried to redact Wilson's initial request to phone the GE CEO — the original version of the email is blacked out — but in a version Clinton forwarded to an aid, the entire Wilson note is included.
It seems Clinton took Wilson's request seriously because she immediately tasked Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson to address Wilson's complaints.
"I have looked into the issues Amb. Joe Wilson raised in his email and discreetly reached out to our embassy in Dar es Salaam to provide us with additional background on GE and Symbion operations in Tanzania," Carson wrote Clinton a week later, adding that "Ambassador Lenhardt [the US ambassador to Tanzania] is in contact with GE and encouraging the company to get involved."
But involved in what, and how, is not clear, since the State Department redacted nearly half of Carson's email citing a broad exemption of the freedom of information disclosure laws.
Hilary Clinton's presidential campaign did not respond to request from VICE News to clarify her involvement in the GE-Symbion dispute.
Symbion CEO Paul Hinks told VICE News that Wilson's emails were simply a well-intentioned effort to alleviate a "devastating" power crisis in Tanzania. "Symbion was doing everything it could to draw attention to this in Washington, DC," Hinks said. "Ambassador Wilson was alerting Secretary Clinton to the enormity of the problem and to the fact that Symbion was trying to help the people of Tanzania and that General Electric, the world's leading power generation manufacturer could play an important role, too."
Eventually, Symbion and GE did resolve their differences. In July 2013, Symbion Power and GE signed a "cooperative" agreement to build a 400MW natural gas-fired power plant in Tanzania. The project is ongoing.
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