How Joe Biden’s effort to dodge son’s conflict of interest may have backfired

More than a decade ago, as then-Sen. Joe Biden launched his second presidential campaign, he asked a favor of his youngest son: stop lobbying.

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Hunter Biden had made a name for himself as a power broker in Washington for clients like Napster and St. Joseph’s University, but reportedly took steps to avoid taking on work that could be construed as a conflict of interest given his politician father. The elder Biden’s request that his son step away from the industry came as part of a larger effort to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Now, as the former vice president embarks on a third presidential bid, Hunter Biden’s professional record has come under scrutiny for the very thing Joe Biden feared ahead of his second unsuccessful presidential bid in 2008. The glare around the appearance of a conflict of interest is particularly bright this time around, having attracted the attention of President Donald Trump.

“Biden and his son are stone cold crooked and you know it,” Trump told reporters at the White House earlier this month. “His son walks out with millions of dollars – the kid knows nothing.”

The president and his allies have fixated on Hunter Biden’s foreign business activities in Ukraine and China. But court records filed more than a decade ago suggest then-Sen. Biden had misgivings about potential conflicts of interest presented by his son’s domestic work, too.

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Hunter Biden speaks with ABC’s Amy Robach, October 2019.

In an exclusive interview with ABC News, Hunter Biden argued that given Joe Biden’s role in policy-making, there was no field in which he could have steered clear of his father’s shadow.

“Because my dad was vice president of the United States, there’s literally nothing, as a young man or as a full grown adult, that my father in some way hasn’t had influence over,” he said. “It does not serve either one of us.”

After graduating from Yale Law School in the mid-1990s, Hunter Biden embarked on multiple career paths that intersected directly with his father’s political work.

He first worked at MBNA, a Delaware-based credit card company and one of his father’s most generous campaign donors. When Hunter Biden was promoted to a senior vice president at the company at age 28, it raised eyebrows. Years later, after Joe Biden was named Barack Obama’s running mate, the campaign struggled to defend Hunter Biden’s work at the company.

Joe Biden has faced criticism on the campaign trail over his legislative record on credit card debt, including from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who testified against a bankruptcy bill in 2005 that she said would benefit the credit card companies at the expense of struggling families – a bill Biden had supported.

After leaving MBNA, Hunter Biden went to Washington, D.C., where he helped launch a lobbying and consulting firm called Oldaker, Biden, & Belair.

PHOTO: WFP USA Board Chair Hunter Biden stands next to his father, former Vice President Joe Biden during an event on April 12, 2016 in Washington, D.C.Getty Images, FILE
WFP USA Board Chair Hunter Biden stands next to his father, former Vice President Joe Biden during an event on April 12, 2016 in Washington, D.C.

“Hunter didn’t do anything that involved his dad, didn’t do anything that involved any help from his dad,” Vincent Versage, described by The New Yorker as Hunter Biden’s lobbying mentor, told the magazine in July.

Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, a nonprofit and nonpartisan advocacy group, said that while it is not uncommon for children of powerful public figures to work in Washington, it can present an ethical conundrum.

“It’s not all that unusual, and that doesn’t make it a crime,” Weissman said. “But it isn’t right.”

Before Joe Biden launched his second campaign for president in November 2006, he sought to find Hunter Biden a new line of work as he became “concerned with the impact that Hunter’s lobbying activities might have on his expected campaign for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination,” according to court documents filed in New York in 2007 as part of a dispute between Hunter Biden and a business associate in his next professional endeavor.

According to claims made by Lotito in the court records, Joe Biden tasked his brother, James, with finding his son a new job. James Biden reached out to his business associate, Anthony Lotito, for help.

“[James] Biden told Lotito that, in light of these concerns, his brother had asked him to seek Lotito’s assistance in finding employment for Hunter in a non-lobbying capacity,” the court documents read. “Lotito agreed to help, and, in connection therewith, began to consider whether any of his contacts in the financial community might be a good starting place in which to seek out employment on Hunter’s behalf.”

In subsequent court filings, the Bidens denied that Joe Biden sought Lotito’s help finding his son work.

PHOTO: Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden delivers a speech during the Womens Leadership Forum in Washington, on Oct. 17, 2019Carlos Jasso/Reuters
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden delivers a speech during the Women’s Leadership Forum in Washington, on Oct. 17, 2019

Shortly thereafter, Hunter and James Biden worked with Lotito to acquire a hedge fund called Paradigm. But within months, the deal began to unravel. Lotito filed a lawsuit in New York accusing the Bidens of cutting him out of the Paradigm deal, and the Bidens countered that Lotito had misrepresented the value of the hedge fund they had acquired.

The Bidens eventually settled with Lotito in 2008 after incurring “$1.3 million in out-of-pocket losses,” according to court records. Hunter Biden later called the ordeal “a tragicomedy,” according to The New Yorker.

Lotito declined an interview request.

From there, Hunter Biden connected with Chris Heinz, the stepson of former Secretary of State John Kerry, and Heinz’s longtime friend Devon Archer to form Rosemont Seneca, an advisory firm that provided “alternative investment opportunities and market guidance that seek to afford an absolute return through our global economic reach and expertise,” according to the group’s archived website.

By 2014, Rosemont Seneca had struck a lucrative partnership with a group of Chinese investors sponsored by the state-run Bank of China.

A lawyer for Hunter Biden told ABC News the fund currently has a registered capital of $4.2 million, and Hunter Biden holds a 10% stake, meaning his committed capital is worth $420,000. His lawyer insists Hunter Biden has yet to receive a financial return on investment, adding that he only became a minority stake-holder in the company in October 2017 – after Joe Biden was vice president. Prior to then, he served as an unpaid director.

Months later, Hunter Biden and his Rosemont Seneca partner, Archer, landed seats on the board of directors at a Ukrainian oil and gas firm called Burisma. According to banking records reviewed by ABC News, the firm began collecting $166,666 payments each month.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump waves after stepping off Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House, early Friday, Oct. 18, 2019, in Washington, D.C.returning from a campaign rally in Texas. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)Alex Brandon/AP
President Donald Trump waves after stepping off Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House, early Friday, Oct. 18, 2019, in Washington, D.C.returning from a campaign rally in Texas. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Heinz never joined Biden and Archer on Burisma’s board, and reportedly “strongly warned” his two associates against doing so. In a statement to The Washington Post in September, a spokesman for Heinz said, “The lack of judgment in this matter was a major catalyst for Mr. Heinz ending his business relationships with Mr. Archer and Mr. Biden.”

President Trump has used Hunter Biden’s foreign business forays to level at him and his father allegations of engaging in conflicts of interest. In Ukraine, the president’s repeated efforts to have the incoming administration in Kyiv investigate the Bidens has led to an impeachment inquiry in Congress. The president also called on Beijing to investigate Hunter Biden’s role in the joint investment firm in China.

Both Bidens have denied any wrongdoing. During an exclusive interview with ABC News earlier this week, Hunter said he exercised “poor judgment” in taking the Burisma board seat, but defended himself against the ethical questions raised about his private ventures,

“I gave a hook to some very unethical people to act in illegal ways to try to do some harm to my father. That’s where I made the mistake,” said Biden. “So I take full responsibility for that. Did I do anything improper? No, not in any way. Not in any way whatsoever.”

During a deposition before Congress this week, Deputy Secretary of State George Kent told investigators he raised the issue of potential ethical concerns with Hunter Biden’s business ties in Ukraine with former Vice President Joe Biden’s office in 2015, two sources familiar with the deposition confirmed Friday to ABC News.

In May 2014, responding to a question raised by ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl, then-White House press secretary Jay Carney said, “Hunter Biden and other members of the Biden family are obviously private citizens, and where they work does not reflect an endorsement by the administration or by the vice president or president.”

Hunter Biden declined to renew his board membership at Burisma in April 2019. Earlier this month, his lawyer announced he would also cut ties with the Chinese investment firm.

On Twitter, President Trump has accused the Bidens of corruption, which is presumably a situation Joe Biden sought to avoid in asking Hunter Biden to end his Washington lobbying career more than a decade ago.

The Biden campaign recently released details of a proposed government ethics plan, which included a stipulation designed to “rein in executive branch financial conflicts of interest” if he’s elected president — an apparent response to allegations lodged against the Biden family.

The ethics pledge also made several references to President Trump and his family. Ivanka Trump currently serves as a special adviser to the president, and Trump’s two adult sons control day to day operations of the Trump Organization. As part of the rollout, Biden told reporters that “no one in my family will have an office in the White House, will sit in at meetings as if they’re a cabinet member.”

The former vice president publicly defended his son in an interview with the Reno Gazette Journal earlier this month, calling Hunter Biden “a fine man.”

“He’s been through hell,” Biden told the newspaper.

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