Commerce Secretary Accused of Shorting Financial Disclosure Mandates

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross testifies before Congress in March. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross testifies before Congress in March. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Unresolved ethics issues involving the finances of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross spilled into the open on Monday when Forbes magazine posted an expose that also questions the treatment of Ross’s financial disclosure forms by the Office of Government Ethics.

Reporter Dan Alexander, in a piece titled “Lies, China And Putin: Solving The Mystery Of Wilbur Ross' Missing Fortune,” followed up on issues raised last year by senators about whether Ross—a wealthy Wall Street investor—had understated his income and mandatory divestments on his 2017 financial disclosure forms.

Alexander’s investigation appears to contradict Ross’s declaration to the ethics office in November 2017 that he had placed his multi-million-dollar holdings in trust. And Alexander uncovered a December 2017 Ross disclosure form that the OGE had not posted publicly.

Among Forbes’ findings:

  • Ross retained holdings in companies co-owned by the Chinese government, a shipping firm tied to Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, a Cypriot bank reportedly caught up in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation and a “huge player in an industry Ross is now investigating;”
  • Ross put some of these interests in a trust for his family members while continuing, as Commerce secretary, to deal with China and Russia on economic matters;
  • Last fall, five days before reports of his holdings in a Putin-linked shipping firm called Navigator Holdings, Ross sold his stock.

“Absurdly, maintaining all those conflicts of interest appears to be entirely legal—a reflection of ethics laws woefully unprepared for governing tycoons like Donald Trump and Wilbur Ross,” the Forbes article stated. “Ross appears to have broken one law, however: submitting a sworn statement to federal officials in November saying he divested of everything he had promised he would—even though he still held more than $10 million worth of stock in financial firm Invesco, his former employer. He also continued to hold a short position in a bank called Sun Bancorp, a company he had promised to divest. The next month, Ross got rid of interests in both.”

Alexander then suggested that the ethics office did not sign off on the December Ross submission, “perhaps because it showed an apparent legal violation by the Commerce secretary.”

According to the OGE’s main statute and regulations, the agency can take additional time on certification of a declaration if additional information is being sought, an OGE spokesperson told Government Executive, noting that some reports are more complex than others. Also, the agency can make a financial disclosure public upon request after 30 days whether or not it is certified.

But that agency’s departed director, Walter Shaub, who tweets his own opinions from his post at the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center, weighed in.

“Serious new allegations about Wilbur Ross, and an unexplained failure to release the most relevant document by the acting Director of my old agency, Dave Apol,” Shaub tweeted on Monday.

In a followup in support of the Forbes piece, he wrote:

“Here's how OGE's acting Director Dave Apol concealed this from the public. OGE must review these reports within 60 days. OGE then posts the report online either certified, stamped ‘decline to certify’ or as-is. But that didn't happen for 5 months! Then Dan demanded a copy.”

In response to Forbes, a Ross spokesman said the secretary had filed amended paperwork to clarify his divestments, which is under review by OGE. He added, “The secretary did not lie.”

Citing newly posted links from OGE's website, a Commerce spokesman said late Monday in a statement to Government Executive, "The secretary continues to follow the guidance of Department of Commerce ethics officials to ensure compliance with federal laws and regulations. As you can see, the department’s ethics officials and the Office of Government Ethics have certified that the transactions documented are in compliance with federal ethics requirements." He added that the links show that Ross sold his holdings related to China, Putin and Cyprus last year.

This story was updated with comment from the Commerce Department.

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