Democratic Senators Seek Probe of Commerce Secretary’s Finances

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross testifies before Congress in October. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross testifies before Congress in October. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

New information on Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s overseas finances prompted six Democratic Senators on Tuesday to ask the Commerce Department’s inspector general to investigate Ross’s personal wealth and compliance with ethics rules.

Also mentioned for examination in the Nov. 14 letter to IG Peggy Gustafson is Ross’s chief of staff, Wendy Teramoto.

“As part of his confirmation process, Ross committed to an ethics agreement that required he divest significant assets and recuse himself from actions that would affect the assets he was permitted to retain,” said the letter signed by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; Maggie Hassan, D-N.H.; Cory Booker, D-N.J.; Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.; and Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill.

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“After missing several deadlines to provide proof that he has sold problematic assets, it remains unclear whether Ross has actually complied with the divestment requirements outlined in his original ethics agreement,” they wrote. “Ross also appears to be actively participating in policymaking that could have a direct and predictable effect on the financial interests of the assets he has retained, which would violate that agreement’s recusal terms.”

The most recent trigger for the call for an inquiry into the finances of Ross—a reported billionaire—is the report an investment in a shipping company tied to a Russian oligarch. That came in the midst of ongoing controversy over the Trump administration’s possible favoritism toward Russia, the subject of a probe by Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller.

The senators asked the IG to examine the true value of Ross’ personal wealth; whether he complied with the divestment requirements in his ethics agreement; whether he complied with recusal requirements; and whether the ethics agreement is adequate.

“As part of the confirmation process, Secretary Ross agreed to divest – or sell off – 80 assets over the course of several months,” the senators noted, though ethics officials allowed him to retain 12 other assets. “We urge you to investigate and confirm that Secretary Ross has complied with all the deadlines in his agreement, whether Secretary Ross has divested all assets per his agreement – including how, e.g., by sale, by gift, etc., whether the process for divestment was conducted in an orderly, legitimate manner, and whether the extensions he was provided by ethics officials were valid.”

Recent news reporting “also raises concerns about high-ranking Department of Commerce officials” including Teramoto, the letter said, “who appears to have served on the board of a shipping company at the same time she oversaw trade deals that may have impacted that company’s finances.”

The Commerce Department did not respond to requests for comment by publication time. But after Forbes magazine reported last week that Ross’s fortune may be less than claimed, the department responded by saying, “Secretary Ross has filed all required disclosures in accordance with the law and in consultation with both legal counsel and ethics officials at the Department of Commerce and Office of Government Ethics.” 

Clark Reid, a spokesman for the Commerce IG, acknowledged that his office had received the senators’ inquiry, adding, “The OIG is reviewing the request and determining the appropriate course of action.”

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