Energy Secretary Rick Perry is pushing back against allegations that the Trump administration used its dealing in Ukraine to investigate political rivals or possibly steer business toward campaign donors, saying he's "extremely comfortable" that there was no "quid pro quo."
The ongoing impeachment inquiry has entangled Perry and other administration officials after a whistleblower accused the administration of pushing Ukraine's president to launch an investigation that some conservatives thought would help President Donald Trump politically, including looking into the Biden family.
Perry has not been accused of breaking the law. But his influential role in the region has led him to be described by U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland during an interview on Ukrainian television as one of the "three amigos" tasked with overseeing the U.S.-Ukraine relationship, and has made him a key person of interest for lawmakers seeking first-hand knowledge of events.
Perry said he has only been focused on addressing corruption in Ukraine and encouraging American companies to do business there. He confirmed that he encouraged the president to call Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy "multiple times" during a press conference in Lithuania on Monday, but said he never encouraged Trump to talk about the Biden family.
"Not once, as God as my witness, not once was a Biden name -- not the former vice president, not his son -- ever mentioned," Perry said in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network on Friday.
"I'm quite comfortable, as a matter of fact I'm extremely comfortable," he added, that no one in the administration including the president intended some kind of "quid pro quo."
According to a report by The Associated Press, Perry allegedly tried to put at least one of his own previous campaign donors on the board of the Ukrainian gas company, Texas-based oil executive Michael Bleyzer, who donated $20,000 to Perry's gubernatorial re-election campaign in 2010. Another Texas oil man Robert Bensh's name, was also floated as a potential board member by Perry, according to the AP.
The AP report has also raised questions that two associates of the president's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani -- Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman -- who were also active in both domestic and international natural gas dealings, attempted to influence the leadership of the Ukrainian natural gas company Naftogaz.
Though they are not explicitly named, Parnas and Fruman, both Soviet-born businessmen based in Florida, have been portrayed in the whistleblower report as being instrumental in Giuliani's efforts to investigate Hunter Biden in Ukraine. Parnas and Fruman were also heavily featured in a 79-page document delivered from the State Department Inspector General Steve Linick to congressional committees last week as being part of many of Giuliani's interviews with former Ukrainian prosecutors.
The two were subpoenaed by House Democrats last week alongside Giuliani, and Trump's former lawyer John Dowd, who has recently been hired by the two as their attorney, confirmed in a statement their involvement in Giuliani's Ukraine efforts.
Parnas and Fruman have been major donors to the president, making a series of big and small contributions to Trump's various fundraising vehicles as early as 2016. Their single-biggest contribution -- a $325,000 check to pro-Trump super PAC America First Action from last year -- was made under the name of their newly established gas company named Global Energy Producers.
Perry said the report was "totally dreamed up" during energy meetings in Lithuania on Monday. He said he only recommended knowledgeable people in the field for the position.
"We get asked for our recommendations about people who are experts in areas, various areas," Perry told reporters. "Folks who have expertise in particular areas. Obviously having been the governor of the state of Texas, I know a lot of people in the energy industry."
Perry has been working to encourage countries like Ukraine to import more American natural gas for both the economic benefits and to move away from Russian oil or gas.
Agnia Grigas, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of the book "The New Geopolitics of Natural Gas," said she doesn't think Perry's interest in Ukraine alone is unusual because past administrations have also pushed for more western influence on energy in the region.
Grigas said Russia has used its huge share of the European energy market to manipulate other countries for decades so the U.S. and the European Union have been focused on helping them become more independent by building up a domestic supply of coal or natural gas or importing it from other sources.
"I think the benefit is generally increasing ties between the U.S. and Ukraine as Ukraine has shifted its geopolitical orientation. The energy sector is a strategic sector where more cooperation has geopolitical implications," she said.
Grigas said it isn't unusual for diplomats to be involved in energy negotiations in many countries because oil and gas companies are run by the government, but U.S. energy production has grown dramatically in the last five years. Trump has made pushing American leadership in the energy space a hallmark of his administration.
"I think President Trump's administration has never shied away from promoting American natural gas interests and American companies," she said.
But under the scrutiny of the impeachment inquiry, Perry will still be forced to answer questions about his specific involvement in Ukraine, including whether he recommended Republican donors for influential positions in Ukrainian companies.
It's unclear if there were any coordinated efforts in Perry's push to replace board members at Naftogaz, and Parnas and Fruman's attempt to replace Naftogaz's executive.
On Monday, Dowd announced in a statement that his clients won't be able to comply with House Democrats' request for documents and deposition, due this week.
Dowd accused the House committees of attempting to "harass, intimidate and embarrass" Parnas and Fruman with requests for documents and communications that are "overly broad and unduly burdensome." He added that he will meet with his new clients this week to go through the facts and relevant documents to prepare a response for the congressional request.