In this case, what happened after the unsuccessful RFP process is shrouded in secrecy, which the State Department has refused repeated requests to clear up. Here's what we do know: In March 2008, months after the close of the competitive bid process, the State Department abruptly announced that it had awarded authorization to design, build, and fundraise a U.S. pavilion to two former Warner Bros. executives. One of those leaders -- Ellen Eliasoph, a current partner at Covington & Burling in Beijing -- is the wife of a top Commerce Department official, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Asia Ira Kasoff. Kasoff is a senior U.S. official working on trade access issues between the United States and China; he is also a former Foreign Service officer based in China. Eliasoph and her partner in Expo 2010, Nick Winslow, were, at the time of the authorization, just two private citizens; only after the authorization, and at the official, written, urging of the State Department, did they form a nonprofit, subsequently named Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc.
In the spring of 2009, I asked Eliasoph how her group was chosen, and she claimed that the selection process was competitive between "two or three teams," despite the fact that the RFP process had ended months earlier and her group hadn't been part of it. Meanwhile Winslow, a theme-park consultant perhaps best known for assisting on the special effects for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, gave me a different answer, telling me he had arranged the authorization by meeting with consular officials, State Department officials, and members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai.
A year after those interviews, Jose Villarreal, appointed in 2009 by Clinton to be the pavilion's commissioner general -- the U.S. government's diplomatic official who serves as the pavilion's final decision maker, official liaison, and public face -- told me that the pavilion process, prior to his role in it, included "the good, the bad, and the ugly, and there's been a little bit of all of that." However, on the question of just how Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc. was selected, he was less specific, telling me that "a lot of people aren't there [at the State Department] anymore" and "a lot of what happened is kind of a blur." The State Department's Office of Inspector General has forwarded a private citizen's complaint that touches on this selection process directly to the secretary of state's executive office.
The absence of clarity on just how Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc. was chosen has likely had consequences for the U.S. image among Shanghai Expo officials, most of whom are senior Chinese government and Communist Party officials. A senior editor at one state-owned publication in Shanghai, for example, recently told me that "everyone knows Ellen got it because of her family connections." True or not, this isn't the image that the U.S. pavilion was supposed to embody. Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc. has repeatedly declined to answer my questions about the role of Commerce Department officials in the pavilion authorization process. In a recent, unpublished interview with another reporter, Eliasoph has denied any conflict between her husband's job and her role with the pavilion.
It wouldn't matter nearly so much if Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc. had performed to the level expected of it by the State Department. But the sad fact is that Eliasoph and Winslow raised almost no money from the time they were awarded the pavilion authorization, missed multiple construction deadlines, and, in the process, alienated large segments of the U.S. business community in Shanghai, as well as numerous Expo officials, according to several individuals in close contact with the Expo authorities and the expat business community. Finally, in the spring of 2009, Chinese Foreign Ministry officials, concerned and frustrated by the faltering U.S. effort, were forced to make personal appeals to Clinton to fix the situation. Shortly afterward, she appointed Villarreal, a friend and fundraiser from San Antonio, to take control of the situation as the commisioner general -- a position that had been previously unfulfilled.