The Office of Government Ethics on Tuesday posted a scolding letter it had sent Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross saying it was withholding certification of Ross’s latest financial disclosure form.
Director Emory Rounds on Feb. 15 wrote to Commerce Department designated ethics official David Maggi saying the OGE “is declining to certify Secretary Ross's 2018 financial disclosure report because that report was not accurate and he was not in compliance with his ethics agreement at the time of the report.”
Referencing a July 18 warning to Ross from then-acting OGE Director David Apol about “errors on his financial disclosure forms and his failure to comply with his ethics compliance agreements,” the new letter analyzes Ross’s Oct. 31, 2018, resubmission of his form. “Despite this admonition, the secretary had not in fact sold all his BankUnited stock prior to certifying his compliance with his ethics agreement and filing his annual report in 2018,” the new letter said. “As a result, his annual report inaccurately reported that he had sold all of this stock when in fact he had not done so.”
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Ross is a wealthy investor whose efforts to get right with the ethics office have hit bumps for two years since his appointment by President Trump. Rounds this week stressed that “even inadvertent errors could undermine the public's trust in the secretary and his department's overall ethics program,” urging Ross to “devote the resources necessary to ensure that his report and all future communications with OGE [are] complete and accurate.”
The department’s ethics officer had reviewed Ross’s calendars, books and correspondence and found no violation, the OGE had said in 2018, but added, “However, your failure to divest created the potential for a serious criminal violation on your part and undermined public confidence.”
OGE’s new letter confirmed Ross’s declaration of his practice of providing Commerce's Office of lnspector General with copies of all of his financial disclosure reports for review.
Ross, through a spokesman, sent a statement on Wednesday to Government Executive that played down the importance of the omission:
When I joined the Department of Commerce, I agreed to divest many of my financial interests. Among those were shares of BankUnited stock I was awarded when I served as a director between 2009 and 2014. I directed the sale of those shares in May 2017. I later discovered that I continued to hold 100 directors qualifying shares of BankUnited stock. These shares were held in book entry form by BankUnited’s stock transfer agent.
I previously reported selling the shares on May 31, 2017, based on a mistaken belief that the agent executed my sell order on that date. These 100 shares were worth approximately $3,700, an amount that federal regulations deem de minimis and below the threshold of a possible conflict of interest. Therefore, even if a BankUnited matter had come before the department while I owned the shares–and I have not been made aware of any such matter–I would not have been disqualified from working on it.
As soon as I learned that the shares had not been sold, I again took action to direct their sale and disclosed the sale of these 100 shares on October 31, 2018, correcting the only known error in my annual report. While I am disappointed that my report was not certified, I remain committed to complying with my ethics agreement and adhering to the guidance of Commerce ethics officials.