Crocodile in the Swamp

After months of one financial scandal after another, Trump’s EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, was finally sacked this past week. While many Americans who favor environmental protections were cheering, there’s a major question still to be answered:  When Pruitt can be sacked for corruption in the thousands, how is it that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross keeps his job? His “issues,” after all, number in the hundreds of millions, and perhaps more.

Forbes has done some great reporting on the case of Wilbur Ross, which is getting far too little attention.

The Wilbur Ross story came more and more into focus as it became clear that Ross had misrepresented his personal net worth to Forbes. While it may at first seem just a matter of his vanity, a closer look shows that the richer that investors believed Ross was, the more successful he could be at raising investor funds.

However, Ross’s fabrications were not limited to questions regarding his net worth. His misrepresentations to co-workers and investors led to millions in fines from the Security and Exchange Commission, tens of millions in refunds back to investors, and 19 lawsuits against him. The many claims against him typically allege him having provided colleagues with “inaccurate financial information,” and even outright stealing of their interests. One former Ross colleague told Forbes: “Everybody does some cheating, everybody does some lying. Not everybody steals from their employees.”

Wilbur Ross’s misrepresentations also extended to his financial disclosures to the U.S. federal government after being named by Donald Trump as Secretary of Commerce. In November 2017, he provided a sworn statement of confirmation to the Office of Government Ethics that he had divested from all holdings as required and as he had previously promised. That was far from the truth.

Details from the Paradise Papers (revealing information about the offshore investments of the world’s wealthy and powerful) included the shocking news that Wilbur Ross was heavily invested in Navigator Holdings, “which linked Ross to some of Vladimir Putin’s closest allies.”

The investigative reporting by Forbes’ Dan Alexander showed that Ross continued to serve as secretary of commerce “while maintaining stakes 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 the Robert Mueller investigation and a huge player in an industry Ross is now investigating. It’s hard to imagine a more radioactive portfolio for a cabinet member.” And perhaps most remarkably, 5 days before those facts were to be reported, Ross shorted stock in the shipping firm connected to the Kremlin, which allowed him to make an additional profit on his misrepresentations when the share price fell.

With the Forbes reporting out in the open, Wilbur Ross filed amended paperwork with the Office of Government Ethics. He has shifted some of his wealth into a trust for his family that continues to be tied to his investments connected to China and Russia.

But there’s more. In late May, the president announced that as part of his tariff scheme, he would begin an investigation into auto part imports. And to head up the investigation, he was appointing Wilbur Ross.

Problem is, Ross owned International Automotive Components Group, one of the world’s largest makers of interior car parts. And while Ross has since shifted his interest in that company into his family’s name, no one doubts for a moment that his family’s interest in that firm is immaterial to the decisions Ross would need to make at the helm of that investigation.  

The mission of the U.S. Commerce Department, according to its website, is that of creating “the conditions for economic growth and opportunity.” What’s not suggested is that it would include economic growth and opportunity for the commerce secretary.

As for Donald Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp,” Trump has been working with Wilbur Ross for over 25 years. As aptly put by Forbes report Dan Alexander:  “It’s an ethical nightmare.”

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