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Former Sanford Board member and Duke donor is at center of Trump impeachment inquiry

A major Duke donor and former member of the Sanford School of Public Policy’s Board of Visitors has found himself at the center of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. 

Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, testified Oct. 17 about the ongoing impeachment inquiry into Trump’s effort to get the Ukranian government to open an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading Democratic presidential candidate. He also has connections to Duke—he sat on the Sanford Board of Visitors from 2017 until 2018, and a foundation he and his wife founded has donated $1.7 million to Duke.

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president of public affairs and government relations, confirmed in an email that Sondland was a member of the Sanford Board of Visitors from 2017 until July 2018.

Sondland resigned after his confirmation as ambassador to the European Union, Schoenfeld wrote.

In 2016, the Gordon D. Sondland and Katherine J. Durant Foundation donated $100,000 to Duke. This donation was followed by a $1.5 million contribution the following year, and another $100,000 contribution to Duke’s American Grand Strategy program in 2018, according to the foundation’s IRS 990 forms

According to the foundation’s website, the 2017 donation “helped to establish the Sondland/Durant Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University,” and the center is “currently under construction.” The link on the foundation’s website leads to the Duke University homepage

The Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship is not part of the Duke Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative.

“It seems that there was a grant from this foundation to the Pratt school,” wrote Jon Fjeld, director of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative at Duke, in an email to the Chronicle. “We can’t find any reference to a Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. I do not believe that the I&E initiative has received a grant from this foundation.”

David Woodell, director of finance at the Pratt School of Engineering, did not respond to a request for comment. J. Philip Duhart, associate director of major gifts at the Pratt School of Engineering, referred questions to Schoenfeld. 

“The Sondland/Durant family has been a generous donor to Duke by supporting academic programs in the Pratt School of Engineering and the American Grand Strategy Program,” Schoenfeld wrote in an email in response to a question from The Chronicle about whether Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship was under construction. “For anything else you’ll have to talk to the foundation.”

The foundation could not be reached for comment.

When asked about the $100,000 donation to AGS in 2018, Peter Feaver—director of AGS and professor of political science—discussed the group’s objectives. 

“The mission of AGS is to raise the next generation of strategists by studying past generations and engaging the current generation,” he wrote in an email. “Our supporters share this vision and make it possible. If you have further questions about donors and donations, I would refer you to Mike Schoenfeld.”

In March 2019, AGS hosted a conversation with Sondland entitled “Transatlantic Relations in an Age of Populism.” The discussion revolved around his stances on international policies and his experience for the ambassadorial position.

“We are especially eager for our students to have a chance to interact with policymakers while they are still in office,” Feaver wrote in a separate email. “We were fortunate to have so many officials from President Obama’s Administration visit while they were still serving and we have been grateful for those working in the current Administration, like Ambassador Sondland, who have been able to come, too.”

Sondland was appointed as ambassador to the European Union in March 2018. This decision was criticized due to Sondland’s previous lack of experience in politics and diplomatic affairs and his $1 million contribution to the Trump inaugural committee in 2016. 

He has been central to the impeachment inquiry due to his series of text messages with Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, that were given to Congress by Kurt Volker, the State Department’s former special envoy for Ukraine. The messages followed a phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which Trump asked Zelensky to open investigations into Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

Sondland and Volker also communicated through text messages leading up to the call between Zelensky and Trump. In his testimony before Congress, Volker admitted that the texts were his attempt at connecting Giulani and Andrey Yermak, senior adviser of Zelensky, believing this would remediate anti-Ukrainian sentiments Guiliani had previously introduced to Trump.

“Most impt is for Zelensky to say he will help investigation - and address specific personnel issues - if there are any,” Volker wrote in a text to Sondland.

Taylor told impeachment investigators on Tuesday that Sondland told him a quid pro quo did not exist. However, Taylor said Sondland went on to describe an arrangement in which Trump withheld the aid until he was sure he would benefit personally.

The freezing of aid was directly connected to Trump’s requests for investigations to be launched into his political rivals, Taylor added.

Sondland was originally scheduled to testify Oct. 8 about the ongoing Ukraine scandal, but the testimony was abruptly called off by State Department officials. Sondland’s lawyer described him as “profoundly disappointed” and offered no explanation for the sudden cancellation, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“I would love to send Ambassador Sondland, a really good man and great American, to testify, but unfortunately he would be testifying before a totally compromised kangaroo court, where Republican’s rights have been taken away, and true facts are not allowed out for the public to see,” Trump tweeted later that day.

House Democrats issued him a subpoena after this cancelled appearance. More than a week later, Sondland spoke in private testimony in front of the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees. 

In his prepared statement before his deposition, Sondland said that he doesn’t “recall any discussions with the White House on withholding U.S. security assistance from Ukraine in return for assistance with the President's 2020 re-election campaign.” 

“The President repeated: ‘no quid pro quo’ multiple times,” he said. “This was a very short call. And I recall the President was in a bad mood.”

Stefanie Pousoulides and Jake Satisky contributed reporting.

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