The head of that team, William N. Bryan, was a career civil servant with an expertise in energy infrastructure and security. But he was a neophyte when it came to the notoriously factional and corrupt world of Ukrainian politics. And it was not long before American and Ukrainian government officials began raising concerns that he was being co-opted by a Ukrainian company seen as aligned with a prominent oligarch — concerns that grew when Mr. Bryan later joined a consulting firm that pursued business proposals with the company.
Now, four years later, those relationships are attracting new scrutiny as Mr. Bryan awaits a Senate confirmation vote to become President Trump’s homeland security under secretary for science and technology.
Mr. Bryan said he followed all the rules and made very little money from the private business with Ukrainian entities.
But his case is the latest to highlight growing concerns about foreign influence on American politics and government, not least from wealthy, powerful Ukrainian interests. And it focuses new attention on the employment designation granted to Mr. Bryan by the Obama administration for part of his tenure in Ukraine, that of "special government employee," a status that allows high-level officials to maintain outside employment.
As part of the confirmation process, the Senate is examining Mr. Bryan’s relationship with the founders of the Ukrainian company, the Energy Industry Research Center, and his work for the Ukrainian government-owned gas company, Naftogaz.
A federal investigative agency is looking into a former colleague’s accusations that Mr. Bryan used his Energy Department position to try to steer government funds to the center, which United States and Ukrainian officials believe to be aligned with Rinat Akhmetov, a billionaire oligarch who maintains close connections to pro-Russia political forces in Ukraine.
A copy of a whistle-blower complaint filed by Mr. Bryan’s former colleague has been requested by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, who has delved into Ukrainian political consulting as an offshoot of his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Mr. Bryan has not been charged with any wrongdoing. In an interview, he said that he "never made a dime off any of the people I knew from the Ukraine, deliberately, because I didn’t want to violate any of the ethics rules."
Mr. Bryan, 59, has spent most of his adult life in public service, including 17 years in the Army, followed by five years in civilian roles at the Defense Department before joining the Energy Department about a decade ago. He was eventually named a senior adviser in the department’s international affairs division, which oversaw the Ukraine work.
During some of the period being scrutinized, Mr. Bryan was designated a "special government employee." The job category is intended to permit the government to place experts on the federal payroll for a limited period while allowing them to continue earning money in the private sector. But it has regularly generated controversy over real or perceived conflicts of interest under both Mr. Trump and his predecessors, most notably the case of Huma Abedin when she served as a special government employee at the State Department under Hillary Clinton.
While operating under that designation at the Energy Department, Mr. Bryan was affiliated with a Virginia consulting firm, ValueBridge International, and he remained with the firm after he left the Energy Department in mid-2016.
The overlap between his Energy Department work and ValueBridge’s efforts, revealed in documents and interviews, underscores the lure of big money that is often dangled in front of Washington officials and consultants by powerful foreign interests looking to shape American politics and policy. It also highlights the difficulty in discerning the motivations of those interests.
The whistle-blower complaint against Mr. Bryan was filed by Robert Ivy, who worked with Mr. Bryan on the Ukraine project when both men were officials at the Energy Department.
Represented by John N. Tye, founder of Whistleblower Aid, a nonprofit law firm, Mr. Ivy, who remains employed by the Energy Department, filed the complaint last month with the United States Office of Special Counsel, a federal agency that investigates whistle-blower complaints.
Mr. Ivy’s lawyers also provided the complaint to Democrats on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which has referred the complaint to the Department of Homeland Security for review and asked Mr. Bryan a series of written questions about his Ukraine work after an August confirmation hearing at which the matter was not broached.
The complaint, which was obtained by The New York Times, accuses Mr. Bryan of violating ethics rules by working on matters in which he had a financial interest, and of shaping Energy Department policy to benefit Mr. Akhmetov and his allies in exchange for "valuable promises of future private business dealings."
Mr. Akhmetov, whose net worth is estimated to be $5.7 billion, looms large over Ukrainian politics — and he in some ways set in motion the sequence of events that resulted in the special counsel’s case against Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.
Mr. Manafort was convicted on eight counts of tax and bank fraud in August and he pleaded guilty to other crimes last month related to his work in Ukraine between 2005 and 2015. He was recruited to do political work in the country by Mr. Akhmetov, who hired Mr. Manafort as a consultant for his industrial businesses, before persuading him to work for the Russia-aligned politician Viktor F. Yanukovych, whose career Mr. Akhmetov had financed.
When Mr. Bryan’s team arrived in Kiev in late 2014, Ukraine was in crisis, with Mr. Yanukovych having fled the country amid mass protests and Russia having annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula. Pro-Russia forces were fighting for control of eastern Ukraine, where the country’s coal supply was concentrated, and Russia had cut off natural gas supplies to Ukraine.
The mission in Ukraine was to help the country’s newly elected pro-Western government by laying out road maps to stabilize energy supplies headed into the winter, and ultimately to increase transparency and free-market competition in its energy sector, which had become a hotbed of corruption.
Mr. Akhmetov — whose holding company, DTEK, controlled a significant share of his country’s coal, gas and electrical supplies — bristled at reform efforts being undertaken by the new government, which promised a "de-oligarchization" of the economy.
And as the team in Ukraine prepared for its second winter in 2015, some Ukrainian and American officials began questioning whether Mr. Bryan was carrying water for Mr. Akhmetov. They specifically raised concerns about Mr. Bryan’s reliance on data, analysis and recommendations provided by the Energy Industry Research Center, a company widely seen as aligned with Mr. Akhmetov and sometimes in conflict with American priorities for helping Ukraine’s government reduce oligarchs’ influence and stand up to Russia.
Mr. Bryan’s team steered $119,000 in United States government funds to the center even as other government officials expressed concerns about the company, according to government budgeting documents, correspondence and interviews.
In August 2015, the Ukrainian energy minister at the time, Volodymyr V. Demchyshyn, wrote a letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz voicing some of those concerns, and asserting that the center was funded at least partly by Mr. Akhmetov’s holding company.
The same month, Dmytro Vovk, then the chairman of the Ukrainian energy regulatory commission, emailed an American official asserting that "after conducting screening" on the center, "one can state that their views are biased."
American officials took the concerns seriously, with one flagging them for an Energy Department political appointee, who responded that "the reality of Ukraine is that almost everybody is carrying someone else’s water."
The center has "provided analytical services" to Mr. Akhmetov’s company, DTEK, and other companies, a DTEK spokeswoman said, but she added that DTEK does not fund the center.
Vadym Glamazdin, a founder of the Energy Industry Research Center who worked closely with Mr. Bryan in Ukraine, said the company "has absolutely no connections to Akhmetov." He said he remains friends with Mr. Bryan, and praised his work in Ukraine as selfless. "We were able to get through the winters of 2014 and 2015 to a great extent because of the work of Bill and his team, and I, as a Ukrainian, am grateful for what they did for us."
Mr. Bryan said he was referred to the center by the Ukrainian government, but had nothing to do with allocating government funds to it.
Within a few months of the emails and the letter airing concerns about his relationship with the Energy Industry Research Center, Mr. Bryan retired as a full-time Energy Department official, went on "special government employee" status and joined ValueBridge to start an energy consulting practice.
Not long afterward, ValueBridge teamed up with the center on a bid for funding from the United States Agency for International Development for a project in Ukraine related to energy and economic development, according to documents and interviews. The proposal was prepared and submitted even as Mr. Bryan continued working with the center as an Energy Department employee.
Mr. Bryan said he had nothing to do with the proposal — which did not yield funding, according to people familiar with it — and he suggested in written responses to questions from Democratic senators as part of his confirmation process that he did not do any work for ValueBridge while he remained at the Energy Department.
He did, however, lead an energy industry conference on "power grid resilience" in his capacity as president of ValueBridge Energy Group in March 2016, while he was working still working for the Energy Department in Ukraine.
Mr. Bryan left the department for good in mid-2016 and went to work full time at ValueBridge. It signed a contract in February 2017 to represent Naftogaz, the Ukrainian gas company.
Naftogaz, which had been plagued by allegations of corruption, worked with Mr. Bryan when he was heading the Energy Department’s Ukraine effort, as did DTEK. By the time ValueBridge got the Naftogaz contract, Mr. Glamazdin, the Energy Industry Research Center co-founder, had gone to work as the Ukrainian government’s liaison to Naftogaz.
ValueBridge was paid a total of $63,680 by a Naftogaz subsidiary and a Brussels-based firm to help seek investors in the United States for Naftogaz and "to promote the success of its recent corporate reforms and communicate how the reforms will enable Ukraine to bring energy security and diversity to Europe," according to a filing submitted to the Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
ValueBridge organized a presentation about investment opportunities in Ukraine on behalf of Naftogaz in Houston on the sidelines of an energy industry conference in March 2017, according to a lobbying filing. One of the speakers at the event was Mr. Glamazdin.
Mr. Bryan said he made only $4,200 for organizing the Houston event. He said he ultimately lost money at ValueBridge because he dipped into personal funds for business development.
By Kenneth P. Vogel, The New York Times