Disgraced former Hong Kong minister Patrick Ho wanted to use Chinese oil money to buy the influence of Republican members of Congress and conservative think tanks in the United States, court documents from his trial have revealed.
Ho told CEFC China Energy boss Ye Jianming in 2014 that cultivating that relationship could prove beneficial in the run-up to the presidential election two years later, which was won by Donald Trump and is the focus of a major investigation into Russian meddling.
In a proposal to the CEFC chairman, Ho wrote that two years of “dollar relations” could help lay the foundation for good US-China partnership in the future.
Ho is presently awaiting sentencing in the US having been found guilty on seven counts of bribery and money laundering in connection with CEFC’s deals with the African countries of Chad and Uganda. Ho was arrested in November 2017, while Ye is believed to be being held in mainland China in connection with another corruption investigation.
The Republican Party swept to power after the midterm elections in 2014, and that year Ho told Ye that it would be a good time to develop friendships with rising members of the party, who could “better understand China”.
Ho also suggested funding Republican-friendly think tanks in Washington to study US-China relations, so they could “speak for China”.
“We should start cultivating relations with young Republican leaders, support them to come to China before the election, and get a genuine feel about China’s development,” Ho wrote.
“In case the Republican Party makes it into the White House in 2016, two years of ‘dollar’ relations and friendship, would definitely help lay the foundation of China-US relations, energy cooperation and other issues.”
The ambition to influence US politics came to light when prosecution released evidence used in the case against Ho, who was convicted on Wednesday by a federal jury at New York Southern District Court, for offering total of US$2.9 million worth of bribes to officials in Chad and Uganda.
It is not clear if Ho or CEFC made any financial contributions to the Republican Party, but the US branch of Ho’s think tank, which is registered as a charity, did not report any lobbying activity between 2012 and 2017.
However, the US branch of the China Energy Fund Committee reported that it had received US$6.98 million (HK$54.5 million) in contributions from “related organisation(s)” since 2012.
On average, it costs an annual US$1.1 million to run the think tank’s US office, which includes co-organising forums in Washington and Beijing, US$460,000 in rent, and employing eight staff.
Tax returns show that the CEFC office in the US co-organised a three-day symposium in Beijing in June 2016 with Columbia University to discuss global energy topics.
The think tank reported to tax authorities in the US that it “helped Columbia University Energy Centre raise $500,000 in June 2016 for new energy research”.
According to the Columbia website, the US-China Energy Programme Advisory Board event in Beijing was organised alongside China’s official think tank, the National Development and Reform Commission, and the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation.
Photographs from the symposium also show Liu Yandong, the head of CEFC’s US office in attendence. Liu was also present at Ho’s bail hearing in May this year.
During Ho’s trial, evidence presented by prosecutors showed that he made multiple reports about offering bribes, and hiring middlemen, in return for talks regarding oil rights to Ye.
In a report to Ye on the midterm elections, and a subsequent meeting with senior Republicans, Ho cited Bobby Ray Inman, the former security director of the National Security Agency, and Robert McFarlane, national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, who predicted their party would win the presidential election in 2016.
Ho said Inman and McFarlane told him that the Republicans were eyeing senators Rand Paul and Joni Ernst, as well as young congresswoman Elsie Stefanik as potential candidates for the presidential nomination.
Paul made an unsuccessful bid in the primary and eventually supported Trump, while according to congressional archives, there is no official record of any of the three visiting China.
Ho also said the senior officials told him money played a major role in securing the presidential nomination within the Republican Party.
“They told me respectively, that winning the nomination within the Republican Party for a presidential candidate was simple,” Ho wrote in the report. “The pay master who paid the most ‘has the say’ – whoever he likes, he would be the candidate.”
In 2012, Inman was invited by Ho’s think tank to speak on US-China relations in Hong Kong, while the think tank, which was fully funded by CEFC also hosted biannual US-China forums in Hong Kong, and Washington, which was attended by diplomats, and former high-ranking officials.
Former CIA director James Woosley, a former senior adviser to Trump, attended a discussion by Ho’s group in 2016 and 2017.