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WASHINGTON (AP) — An oil and gas industry executive that Energy Secretary Rick Perry recommended as an adviser to the Ukrainian government exaggerated his military credentials, according to U.S. veterans who said he scrubbed the false information from online profiles after learning they were investigating his service record.
Robert Joseph Bensh claimed to have been a member of the U.S. military's most elite combat units: Army Rangers, Special Forces and Delta Force, the hyper-secret counter-terrorism group. But a summary of his military career obtained by The Associated Press through a Freedom of Information Act request shows he spent less than five years in uniform, almost all of it with the Army National Guard. Bensh was on active duty for only a few months, according to the summary.
Bensh, 52, declined to provide comment for this story.
Information on Bensh's personal website and social media says he has more than two decades of experience in the oil and gas industry in Ukraine and other countries. AP reported earlier this week that Perry had informed Ukrainian officials during meetings in Kyiv that the Trump administration wanted to replace the entire supervisory board of the country's largest gas company, Naftogaz.
The Naftogaz supervisory board is supposed to be selected by the Ukrainian president's Cabinet in consultation with international institutions, including the International Monetary Fund, the United States and the European Union. It must be approved by the Ukrainian Cabinet.
Among the candidates Perry recommended were Bensh and Michael Bleyzer, a Ukrainian-American businessman from Texas. Perry also suggested Daniel Yergin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose work focuses on the global energy industry, and Carlos Pascual, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine during the Clinton and Bush administrations.
The Department of Energy did not respond to questions Friday about whether Perry was aware of Bensh's prior false claims regarding his military career or whether the secretary stood by his recommendation.
Bensh, who is based in Houston, has long operated in and out of Kyiv, where he served as an energy adviser to the Ukrainian government under the pro-Russian regime of President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted from office in a 2014 popular uprising.
According to an online biography AP recovered from an internet archive, Bensh worked closely with Yuri Boyko, Yanukovych's energy minister and former vice-prime minister. Boyko, one of the few openly pro-Russian politicians left in Ukraine, made headlines earlier this year when he traveled to Moscow to meet with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Russian President Vladimir Putin's second in command.
Another archived online profile from 2010 reviewed by AP listed Bensh as a former non-commissioned officer with U.S. Army Special Operations, as well as the 3rd Ranger Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group and 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta Education.
None of that matches Bensh's actual military record, obtained by AP from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.
The web site Valor Guardians has included Bensh in its "Valor Thieves Gallery" since 2014, following an examination of his military background conducted by a Special Forces veteran. The site said that after it contacted Bensh he scrubbed "any references to his imagined military from the internet where he could." But screen captures of his Facebook profile and a profile on the website SourceWatch had been preserved.
Dave Hardin, a former Marine and the lead investigator at Valor Guardians, said he rarely removes a person from the Valor Thieves Gallery out of concern they'll "reinvent" their careers again.
"We have to stay vigilant," Hardin said. "If just anybody can claim honor in military service, then there is no honor."
Jeff Hinton, the retired Special Forces master sergeant who first examined Bensh's background, said people who overstate or falsify their military service often do so because they believe future employers or clients will be more impressed by a former soldier who scaled the highest peaks of the special operations world than one who sat behind a desk or worked in the motor pool.
"He was prolific about it," Hinton said of Bensh. "Any profile he had, he included it."
Bensh enlisted in the Army in 1989, according to the federal summary of his military record. There's no indication he deployed to a war zone and he was discharged in 1993 with the rank of specialist. He spent nearly six more years in reserve status, and was not called up for duty, the records show.
He earned the National Defense Service Medal, which is given to service members who served honorably during a period of conflict whether they saw combat or not, and a Sharpshooter badge, which soldiers receive for passing the marksmanship training course.
His LinkedIn page includes a reference to his Army service, although it says it began in 1986. The page also says he spent time on a "special work detail" with the Drug Enforcement Administration in New York. The older version of Bensh's bio had described him as a DEA Special Agent.
Bensh's connections in Ukraine stretch back to 2001 when he was chairman and CEO of Carpatsky Petroleum, which operated in the Eastern European country. He's also listed in business records as a director of Pelicourt Limited, a company registered in Cyprus, which is the largest shareholder of Houston-based Cub Energy, that held an interest in nine oil and gas licenses in Ukraine, according to its 2018 annual report.
Yet some public information about his oil and gas career is also incorrect.
Bensh's personal web site said he "currently serves as the executive chairman on the board of directors of Rose Petroleum," a U.K.-based oil and gas company. But Bensh's affiliation with Rose fell through a little more than a month after it was announced earlier this year, according to statements the company filed with the London Stock Exchange, after he failed to meet terms of a contract that required him to invest $336,000 in the company.
"Mr. Bensh has no further relationship with the company or the new board, nor does the company believe that Mr. Bensh is a shareholder in the company," said Peter Curtain, a spokesman for Rose.
Associated Press investigative reporter Desmond Butler contributed.