He was supposed to help lead a non-profit effort, overseen by the U.S. government, to showcase American business, culture, and technology to the world.
Instead, Alan Dunn was using his position on the U.S. World’s Fair team to promote the interests of one of the most controversial and politically connected firms in Washington, according to documents reviewed by The Daily Beast, and interviews with half a dozen people familiar with the matter.
Dunn, the former assistant secretary of commerce and member of Donald Trump’s transition team, helped start and provide legal counsel for a non-profit to build a $60 million U.S. pavilion for the World’s Fair in Dubai in 2020. At the same time, Dunn worked as the chief legal officer of IP3—a firm currently being investigated by a congressional committee for pushing the Trump administration to approve a deal to export nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia. Members of Congress have openly denounced the firm’s plan, saying it threatens U.S. national security interests.
Dunn denies any wrongdoing. But according to documents reviewed by The Daily Beast and according to individuals on the team, most of whom requested to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, he blurred the lines between the work he was tasked to do for the pavilion and the work he carried out for IP3.
Those sources said Dunn used his position on the project team to advance IP3’s core mission and to get it access to the administration, all while receiving higher payments from the pavilion. Although IP3’s connection to the Trump team has been documented in the past, communications reviewed by The Daily Beast show the firm’s links to the Trump administration, and to the State Department in particular, were significantly cozier than previously understood.
Dunn’s work worried some individuals working for the pavilion, to the point where they started to ask whether it might tarnish the reputation of the team. The concern was over Dunn’s connection to IP3 and the news that it was being scrutinized by various lawmakers on Capitol Hill, particularly because of its connection to former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
There were other worrying scenarios throughout the two-year Dubai pavilion saga, according to documents reviewed by The Daily Beast. Leadership fought constantly about the direction of the project, who to bring in for help and how to work with the government. Some were viewed as caring more about how the pavilion effort would benefit them professionally, according to former board members and individuals associated with the team. And, those sources said, individuals on the project used their positions to gain access to the White House and other parts of the Trump administration for outside business, according to emails and other forms of communications handed over to the State Department earlier this year.
Documents obtained by The Daily Beast and interviews with members of the original team raise questions about the State Department’s oversight of the pavilion, how it handled complaints by pavilion board members and why it approved the inclusion of individuals who were either actively trying to influence the Trump administration on Middle East policy, or who headed businesses with overlapping interests. Stories of the chaotic pavilion team and the State Department’s oversight have reached Capitol Hill, and two government sources say they are looking into the matter.
The State Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Almost everyone interviewed for this story said they were relieved they left the team or that the work ended. Two individuals said they were “embarrassed” to have been part of the process. The group officially disbanded this spring after multiple failed attempts to raise money for the pavilion. Some individuals left earlier in the process, including the team’s CEO, claiming the dysfunctional management and constant in-fighting was impossible to navigate. They also said leaders of the project, including Bush, had made promises to vendors that were impossible to keep.
“Beyond any personality clashes or other dysfunctions, this is by no means the first time the U.S. has missed wildly at World’s Fairs,” said one source associated with the 2020 pavilion. “As the wealthiest country on Earth, projects like this should be an easy win that tells the world what’s right with the United States for an investment that’s essentially a rounding error. While many of us from the original consortium now watch from the sidelines, we remain hopeful that public funding is secured, that all past debts are paid, that the Department of State prioritizes the right internal management changes.”
The whole idea of a “World’s Fair” might seem a little quaint, in an era in which the planet is so deeply interconnected. But it’s still hugely important, with each event bringing in millions of visitors and billions in revenue—and providing a forum for each country to present its best face to every other.
When the State Department found out in April 2017 that the United Arab Emirates would host the next World Fair in Dubai, it immediately began looking for a crack team to raise money and build a structure for the U.S.. Like all other countries, the administration wanted to showcase the most promising innovations in the U.S.—including Virgin’s ultra high-speed hyperloop transportation system that could, one day, allow a passenger to travel from Los Angeles to New York in under five hours.
The department solicited bids from multiple different groups to run the U.S. pavilion, but had its eyes on one in particular—a cohort that included well-liked department contractors, architects, and designers. Greg Houston, a state department contractor who works in public diplomacy, was tapped to be the pavilion’s CEO; Mark Giuliani, an architect in Virginia, would handle design management, with other architects and advisers based in Colorado.
But the team also included Fred Bush, who failed to clinch the ambassadorship to Luxembourg in 1990 because of allegations he engaged in influence peddling at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He was in charge of fundraising and was chairman of the pavilion board. Bush’s son is a Trump appointee at the State Department. Dunn was responsible for legal work on the pavilion and is the chief legal officer of IP3, the firm targeted by congressional investigators.
The House Oversight Committee released a report on IP3 and its nuclear plan last month, saying executives at the firm gained access to the highest echelons of the U.S. government—including the White House—in their attempt to win favors with Riyadh, which was accepting bids from countries across the world to help it develop its nuclear sector.
“The Trump administration virtually obliterated the lines normally separating government policymaking from corporate and foreign interests,” the report said. “Documents show the administration’s willingness to let private parties with close ties to the president wield outsized influence over U.S. policy towards Saudi Arabia.”
Before that investigation even took off, pavilion members say they were wary of working with Dunn because of his relationship to IP3 and its connection to Flynn. Some of those who spoke to The Daily Beast said they signed on to the project because they genuinely wanted to help the U.S. build a pavilion in Dubai. But they’d only do that if they could keep their reputation intact throughout the process. And, they said, the more they learned about IP3 and the more they saw signs of Dunn overlapping his work with the firm and the pavilion, the more they became concerned about staying on the project. Several individuals did say, however, that there was more at play on the team that contributed to them leaving, including the constant bickering among leadership and the chaotic nature of fundraising.
As the project moved forward, and IP3 came under scrutiny by lawmakers on Capitol Hill and other national security wonks, the team grew increasingly frustrated with Dunn and worried about potential conflicts of interests with his work. Several said Dunn did work for IP3 out of the pavilion offices, conducting phone calls and meetings, including with his brother Rep. Neal Dunn (R-FL), about the firm’s plans for nuclear exports. In 2018 Rep. Dunn (R-FL) put forward a resolution with Rep. Donald Norcross (D-NJ) and Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) using language that mimicked that of IP3’s stated mission. Asked about his brother’s resolution, Dunn said “neither Representative Norcross nor Dunn submitted that bi-partisan resolution at my request or the request of my company.”
According to interviews with pavilion members and documents reviewed by The Daily Beast, Dunn mixed his work on the pavilion and IP3, and used his role on the pavilion to push forward the mission of IP3.
At one point in the summer of 2018, Dunn emailed his colleagues to ask them to consider hiring one of the associates at IP3. At another point in time, Dunn suggested to his colleagues that he had used IP3’s connections with the State Department to influence hiring decisions that would benefit the project and his firm.
Today Dirk Vande Beek is the director of the office of public affairs at the Department of Energy. But at the time of Dunn’s email, he was interviewing for a senior personnel job at the State Department. Vande Beek did not respond to a request for comment.
“I’ve now spoken with the both of you re the potential new senior personnel at State —Vande Beek. In addition, I have learned that the Secretary also is interviewing a person for the Economics Under Secretary job today,” Dunn wrote in August 2018. “Bud McFarlane, one of the IP3 founding directors and very close friend & adviser of SecState Pompeo has agreed to meet with Vande Beek this afternoon as well.” (McFarlane was national security advisor to President Ronald Reagan.)
“Clearly, SecState Pompeo is staffing up and ensuring that he has the political team in place to manage State and direct it toward goals aligned with the Administration,” Dunn’s email continued. “I believe this effort by the Secretary will give Pavilion USA 2020 a much better opportunity to get the flexibility to operate effectively.”
At the same time that Dunn was helping gain access to Trump administration for the team, he and his firm were also trying to clinch meetings with top officials in an attempt to push the IP3 plan for Saudi forward, according to documents reviewed by The Daily Beast and three individuals associated with the project. IP3, according to three sources familiar, was having difficulty moving the ball forward on the idea of exporting American technology to Saudi in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Just weeks after the pavilion secured a meeting with White House officials, Vande Beek was hired at the Department of Energy. Just weeks after that, IP3 gained access to the president, sitting down with other energy executives for a high-profile roundtable discussion on nuclear power.
Dunn insists this was all on the up-and-up. “I never used my position as a director or counsel to the pavilion company for anything to do with IP3 except that I recommended to the pavilion that they consider a very capable candidate for employment who had previously worked for IP3. If I set up any meetings or made any introductions, it was a perfectly legitimate attempt to discuss collaboration with the USG on advancing the project,” Dunn told The Daily Beast. “Both my work for IP3 and Pavilion involved issues of international trade in goods and services and compliance with U.S. law as well as policies related to U.S. national economic interests and, in the case of the U.S. pavilion at the World’s Fair, tangentially involved U.S. national security interests.”
But while Dunn was pushing the State Department to hire his old colleague, the pavilion’s leadership was butting heads with Foggy Bottom officials, including Jim Core, the director of international expositions unit office. The pavilion board wanted to find other people in the Trump administration who could help with fundraising issues.That’s when it brought in Mike Jones, a registered lobbyist for Capitol Capital Group in Boston, who works on behalf of U.S. chambers of commerce in the Middle East and is a longtime friend of Bush.
Jones invoiced the pavilion for “introduction to key leaders in the American international business community” and “business development”—connecting the pavilion team to executives in the Middle East. But behind closed doors, documents show, he used his connection to White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney to advocate for help attracting funds for the project in exchange for personal payment from the pavilion. In those meetings, Jones also spoke on behalf of the businessmen he lobbied for, sources said.
In the weeks following Jones’ outreach to the White House in December 2018, members of the Middle East Council of American Chambers of Commerce (MECACC)—a lobbying client of Jones’—met with the Trump administration, including with Mulvaney, in March 2019.
Jones was advised by Bush and others, including Dunn, that there was no need to sign a formal contract with the pavilion in the beginning, though he did end up entering into one later, according to documents reviewed by The Daily Beast.
During the beginning of Jones’ $10,000-per-month contract with the pavilion, individuals involved in its efforts raised concerns about the optics of having a registered lobbyist work on behalf of the project, especially when that individual was at the same time lobbying the administration for his clients in the Middle East —some of whom also happened to support the pavilion. Those concerns were largely shot down by Dunn and Bush. The pavilion needed Jones’ help trying to convince the office of management and budget, housed inside the White House, to help oversee the pavilion process and to support federal funding for the project, several individuals involved in the pavilion said. According to sources familiar, Jones was told he could invoice the pavilion for “business development” work and the brokering of meetings could be considered “favors.”
When asked for comment via email, Jones said in a text message: “Are you CNN? Because this is ridiculous. What the hell are you doing?” Jones went on to ask in a phone call: “Why do you have inflection at the end of your sentences? Are you 20 years old?”
The pavilion team disbanded this spring after the leaders of the project, Bush and Houston, had a massive falling out, according to three people associated with the project. Bush and Houston, among other things, disagreed on Dunn’s position, work and payment, spurring a fight to oust the other from the team. As individuals associated with the project described it, the board investigated accusations each man made of the other. In the end, members of the board resigned, several on the same day. The non-profit dissolved, leaving some vendors out to dry. Some of those financial commitments are still being dealt with today by the new team in charge, which is desperately trying to raise funds for the pavilion by this fall.
Now, the Trump administration is bracing for the chance that the U.S. may not appear at the 2020 world expo at all. The State Department is overseeing a new team of individuals who are working to find new, better funding, for the pavilion in 2020. So far, though, those efforts are off to a rough start.
“Having seen the power of the USA Pavilion at the 2017 World Expo, which was due to the enormous effort by its partners and stakeholders, I know that the key to success in Dubai is absolute focus and unity,” said Josh Walker, the CEO and president of the 2017 Expo in Astana, Kazakhstan. “As someone who led an effort that resulted in a lauded pavilion experience for hundreds of thousands, I know what success looks like; this isn’t it.”