Commerce Secretary Wilbur L Ross Jr faces questions about his financial disclosures to Congress and the government after a report that he didn't disclose business ties to the son-in-law of Russian President Vladimir V Putin and an oligarch under US sanctions.
A Democratic senator, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, called on the Commerce Department's inspector general to open an investigation into the matter, which concerns Ross's ownership stake in a shipping company that did business with a Russian firm.
''In concealing his interest in these shipping companies – and his ongoing financial relationship with Russian oligarchs – Secretary Ross misled me, the Senate Commerce Committee, and the American people,'' Blumenthal said in a statement. ''Secretary Ross' financial disclosures are like a Russian nesting doll, with blatant conflicts of interest carefully hidden within seemingly innocuous holding companies.''
After becoming commerce secretary, Ross retained investments in a shipping firm he once controlled that has significant business ties to a Russian oligarch subject to American sanctions and President Putin's son-in-law, according to newly disclosed documents.
The shipper, Navigator Holdings, earns millions of dollars a year transporting gas for one of its top clients, a giant Russian energy company called Sibur, whose owners include the oligarch and Putin's family member.
Despite selling off numerous other holdings to join the Trump administration and spearhead its ''America first'' trade policy, Ross kept an investment in Navigator, which increased its business dealings with Sibur even as the West sought to punish Russia's energy sector over Putin's incursions into Ukraine.
Partnerships used by Ross, whose private equity firm has long been the biggest shareholder in Navigator, have a 31-per cent stake in the company. Though his personal share of that stake was reduced as he took office in February, he retained an investment in the partnerships valued between $2 million and $10 million, and stood to earn a higher share of profits as a general partner, according to his government ethics disclosure and securities filings.
Ross's stake in Navigator has been held by a chain of companies in the Cayman Islands, one of several tax havens where much of his wealth, estimated at more than $2 billion, has been tied to similar investment vehicles.
Details of these arrangements surfaced in a cache of leaked files from Appleby, one of the world's largest offshore law firms, which administered some 50 companies and partnerships in the Caymans and elsewhere connected to Ross.
The Appleby documents, part of the 'Paradise Papers' obtained by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, were shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and other media organizations. They show how the Bermuda-based Appleby worked to help the wealthy elite, from Russian oligarchs to Middle Eastern princes, as well as multinational corporations like Apple and Nike, avoid billions of dollars in taxes.
In addition to Ross, the files contain references to other members of the Trump administration, including Gary D Cohn, the chief economic adviser who was associated with 22 Bermuda entities while an executive at Goldman Sachs, and Secretary of State Rex W Tillerson, who was a director of a Bermuda-based joint venture with the government of Yemen when he ran Exxon Mobil's operations there. There is no evidence of illegality in any of their dealings.
Ross emerges as a particularly valued client for the offshore law firm, whose records provide more insight into his financial holdings beyond the public ethics disclosures he made upon joining the Trump administration. His ethics agreement filed in January listed the partnerships he intended to keep, but not the investments they held. Previously, Navigator had been mentioned in a separate, 57-page description of his holdings for the year that ended in December 2016, but with no hint of its ties to Sibur.
It is unclear whether Ross violated federal guidelines for ethics disclosures by not revealing the connections, and he isn't alleged to have violated any law.