Wilbur Ross is President Donald Trump’s secretary of commerce. Arguably moreso than any other Cabinet member, he is the leading proponent of Trump’s “America First” policy on international trade.
Ross made a point of selling off numerous holdings to join the Trump administration. Which makes all the more curious the report that he has retained his investments in a shipping firm he once controlled that has significant business ties to a Russian oligarch subject to American sanctions and Russian President Vladimir V. 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, Gennady Timchenko, and Kirill Shamalov, Putin’s son-in-law. 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, the New York Times reported Nov. 5.
Partnerships used by Ross, whose private equity firm has long been the biggest shareholder in Navigator, have a 31 percent 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’ 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 less than $700 million, Forbes.com reported Tuesday on its website — 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, obtained by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, were shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and other media organizations, including The New York Times. 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.
Ross’ 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.
There is no evidence of illegality in any of Ross’ dealings. But that’s not the point.
President Trump is encouraging Congress to send him a tax reform bill which includes a lower corporate tax rate with a specific goal of encouraging American companies to discontinue the practice of inversion: merging with a foreign company and incorporating the new company in that country to pay a corporate tax rate lower than the American rate.
The stated goal of the Trump administration’s trade policy is “America First.”
Why, then, did the president’s commerce secretary – having made a pointedly public divestment in so many of his public holdings to become this adminstration’s “America First” point man – maintain his business relationship with such high-profile Russians, including one subject to American sanctions, and stash his money in the Cayman Islands?
Secretary Ross should sell his stake in Navigator. It would show us he’s serious about putting America first.