It’s been days since a leading official in Donald Trump’s cabinet faced new corruption allegations, and given recent history, I’m afraid that suggests we were due.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has already been the subject of some controversies, mostly stemming from his alleged efforts to mislead the public about his net worth, but Forbes magazine this week reported on a new development related to Ross’ public vow to divest from his private-sector holdings upon entering government.
In November 2017, Ross confirmed in writing to the federal Office of Government Ethics that he had divested everything he promised. But that was not true. After weeks of investigation, Forbes found:
For most of last year, Ross served 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.
Ross eventually took steps to distance himself from his investments, but many of his holdings were moved to a family trust, which means he didn’t really solve the problem. As the Forbes report added, “Ross’ ethics agreement required him to divest, either by selling his assets or giving them away. Simply parking them in a trust was not enough.”
And while this looks pretty bad, the story took an even more alarming turn when we learned Ross allegedly took steps to profit from scrutiny of his apparent corruption.
The New York Times reported late yesterday that Trump’s cabinet official “shorted stock in a shipping firm – an investment tactic for profiting if share prices fall – days after learning that reporters were preparing a potentially negative story about his dealings with the Kremlin-linked company.
The transaction, valued between $100,000 and $250,000, took place last fall after Mr. Ross became aware that journalists investigating offshore finances were looking at his investments in the shipper Navigator Holdings, whose major clients included a Russian energy company. The New York Times emailed a list of questions about Navigator to Mr. Ross on Oct. 26.
Three business days later, Mr. Ross, a wealthy investor, opened a short position in Navigator, according to filings released on Monday by the Office of Government Ethics. The company’s stock price slid about 4 percent before Mr. Ross closed his position on Nov. 16, eleven days after the articles were published by The Times and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists as part of the “Paradise Papers” project.
Ross maintains that the timing is coincidental.
I can appreciate why people get tired of seeing sentences like this one, but in a normal political era, Ross’ predicament would be unsustainable and this would be considered a real national controversy.