Charles S. Clark | August 21, 2018 | 0 Comments

Complaints Pile Up on Commerce Secretary’s Financial Disclosure Challenges

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross testifies on Capitol Hill earlier this summer. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross testifies on Capitol Hill earlier this summer. Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

First it was Democratic lawmakers, then it was the Office of Government Ethics, then a Republican senator, and, most recently, a nonprofit ethics group.

All are demanding further investigations of whether Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross failed to properly disclose or fully divest his financial holdings—estimated by Forbes magazine at $700 million.

Last week, as Ross continued his active role in implementing President Trump’s controversial tariffs, the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington wrote to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Commerce Department Inspector General Peggy Gustafson seeking a probe of whether Ross “violated the federal criminal conflict of interest law, 18 U.S.C. § 208, when he participated in a series of meetings between March and May 2017 that may have affected his financial interests in the Boeing Co., Chevron Corp., Greenbrier Companies, and International Automotive Components Group.”

The group also requested that officials investigate whether Ross “falsely reported on his December 2016 public financial disclosure report that he had fully divested from Greenbrier and failed to disclose on that report his interest in Nautical Bulk Holding, a shipping company with reported Chinese connections.”

CREW cited reporting by Forbes, which on Aug. 6 hit Ross with another in a series of stories, this one detailing allegations from former investor colleagues filing a lawsuit and saying he “robbed them of money,” and falsely claiming that his Wall Street firm had never been fined by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

“Secretary Ross continues to demonstrate a troubling disregard for his ethics obligations, and his systematic failures and omissions suggest that he may have knowingly and willfully violated the law,” said CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder. “On several occasions, Secretary Ross has misled the American public about his financial interests, including failing to disclose holdings in companies directly lobbying the administration on issues he oversees.”

Ross’s incomplete financial disclosures and ownership of shares in a shipping company tied to Russia prompted demands for investigations last November from Democratic senators led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. This June, Blumenthal joined with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., in asking SEC Chairman Jay Clayton to look into the share trading in the shipping firm.

On July 12, the Office of Government Ethics, under acting director and General Counsel David Apol, wrote to Ross reminding him that “various financial disclosure forms and compliance documents that you have submitted to OGE in the past year have contained various omissions and inaccurate statements.” Though Ross had called the omissions inadvertent, Apol said, “Your failure to divest created the potential for a serious criminal violation on your part and undermined public confidence…. As a high level public official, you have an affirmative duty to protect the public trust and serve as a model of ethical behavior.”

Ross issued a statement saying he would sell the holdings in question. “My investments were complex and included hundreds of items,” he said. “I self-reported each error, and worked diligently with my department’s ethics officials to make sure I avoided any conflicts of interest.”

On Tuesday, a Commerce Department spokesman referred Government Executive queries to Ross’s attorney, Theodore Kassinger, a partner in the O’Melveny firm.

“Secretary Ross has not violated any conflict of interest law or regulation," Kassinger said. "He has not participated personally and substantially in, nor taken any action in regard to a particular matter that would have had a direct and predictable effect on his financial investments. He continues to follow the guidance of Commerce Department ethics officials regarding the matters in which he is personally involved. He has divested a very substantial part of the investments he held when he assumed the office of secretary, and he has pledged to divest other remaining holdings even though he is not obligated to do so.”

A spokesman for the inspector general confirmed receipt of the queries on Ross, including CREW’s, saying “they are under review. It is the Office of Inspector General’s practice to not comment on open matters prior to their conclusion.”

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