Under-fire US envoy to Singapore is said to berate staff, waste money and has poor relationship with ministers


Jonathan Kaplan was confirmed as ambassador in late 2021. - The Straits Times -- PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

SINGAPORE (Bloomberg): President Joe Biden’s ambassador to Singapore threatened staff, wasted money and poorly promoted US interests, according to an internal watchdog report released on Friday.

The State Department’s inspector general said embassy employees interviewed as part of its regular review process "described a fear, and even direct threats, of reprisal” from Jonathan Kaplan, an entrepreneur and Democratic campaign donor who was confirmed as ambassador in late 2021.

Kaplan also "developed poor relationships with some Singaporean ministries,” which hurt progress on US efforts in the strategically important Asia-Pacific city-state, the report found.

The findings will draw fresh scrutiny to successive presidents’ longtime practice of distributing ambassador jobs to campaign donors and political allies who have no diplomatic experience.

That was the case with Kaplan, an entrepreneur who invented the now-defunct Pure Digital Technologies’s Flip Video pocket camera and ventured into fast-casual dining ventures, but had never served in a government role. According to the Campaign Legal Center, he donated more than US$100,000 to Democratic campaigns in the 10 years prior to his appointment.

Kaplan said in a statement that he takes "full responsibility for quickly addressing the concerns and recommendations found in the report.”

The inspector general’s report also recommended further investigation by the State Department into Kaplan’s conduct.

White House national security spokesman John Kirby said Biden is "comfortable that the State Department is taking this seriously” and wants "his representatives overseas and at home to act and to lead and to manage people with dignity and respect.”

A State Department spokesman said the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs and the Singapore embassy concur with the report’s recommendations to review the issues and have already taken steps to address them.

The Singapore ambassador serves as a crucial go-between with a government that maintains strong ties with both the US and China, seeking to balance their superpower competition.

The Southeast Asian tropical island has long been a key link in global supply chains, energy and finance, as it lies along a major shipping channel and has fostered a large banking and trading community.

Travel, Parties

The report’s findings also included concern that Kaplan didn’t follow the department’s management principles and procedures, and ran afoul of government regulations on funding and gifts.

For example, the report said the inspection found US$48,000 in travel expenses that weren’t properly accounted for. It also cited the embassy spending more than US$27,000 for a party on the USS Makin Island, which included a grand piano on the ship’s deck played by a professional pianist who was also a friend of Kaplan’s.

The expense led "the embassy to reduce funding for other public diplomacy programs that might have more effectively advanced U.S. interests in Singapore,” the report said.

The ambassador job was vacant for five years before Kaplan was confirmed in November 2021, after former President Donald Trump’s first nominee, KT McFarland, withdrew from consideration and the Senate declined to take up his second.

During his time as ambassador, Kaplan gained attention for his informal style, which includes wearing a t-shirt, blazer and jeans even on formal occasions.

That included appearances with US officials, as when he greeted Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on the tarmac in Singapore, as well as meetings with foreign leaders like Singapore’s prime minister and deputy prime minister.

--With assistance from Jennifer Jacobs, Bill Allison and Iain Marlow.

-- ©2024 Bloomberg L.P.

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