Leaked documents reveal Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross's business link to Putin pals: reports

Key Points
  • Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross reportedly failed to clearly disclose to Congress that he retained an interest in a shipping firm that has close dealings with people linked to Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
  • Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal said he is "astonished and appalled because I feel misled" by Ross during confirmation hearings.
  • The details are contained in the "Paradise Papers," a trove of millions of leaked documents that show widespread holdings of cash in off-shore tax havens by the rich and powerful.
Wilbur Ross
Brendan McDermid | Reuters

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross failed to clearly disclose to Congress during confirmation hearings that he retained an interest in a shipping company that has close business dealings with an immediate family member of Vladimir Putin's and known associates of the Russian leader, according to new reports Sunday.

NBC News reported that the billionaire Ross retains an interest in Navigator Holdings, a shipping company whose most important business relationships include a Russian petrochemical giant, SIBUR, whose owners include people tied to Putin.

Some of the details of Ross's continuing financial holdings are contained in the so-called "Paradise Papers," millions of documents held by a Bermuda-based law firm, Appleby, which were leaked to the the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.

The documents were also shared by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which gave NBC News access to some of the documents.

The New York Times, in its own story on the documents Sunday, said that 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."

However, The Times noted that "there is no evidence of illegality in any of their dealings."

BBC News, in its story on the Paradise Papers, reported that the "huge new leak of financial documents has revealed how the powerful and ultra-wealthy," including the private estate of Queen Elizabeth II, "secretly invest vast amounts of cash in offshore tax havens."

NBC noted that during his confirmation hearings, Ross disclosed a set of four Cayman Island companies in which he intended to retain an interest. However, he did not declare he would retain two other entities with cryptic names.

Those two entities are linked through ownership chains to the four Cayman Island companies, and, in turn, held 17.5 million shares in Navigator, equal to almost one-third of that firm's outstanding shares.

SIBUR is Navigator's second-largest client.

And one of SIBUR's owners is Gennady Timchenko, a Russian billionaire who is considered part of Putin's inner circle, NBC stated. Since 2014, Timchenko has been barred by the Treasury Department from entering the United States, according to NBC News.

A second SIBUR owner is another Putin associate, Leonid Mikhelson, whose other company, Novatek, was placed on Treasury sanctions list in 2014, NBC noted.

A third shareholder in SIBUR, and its deputy chairman, is Kirill Shamalov, husband of Vladimir Putin's daughter, Katerina Tikhonova.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat., told NBC News that he and other members of Congress who participated in Ross's confirmation hearings were under the impression that Ross had divested all of his interests in Navigator.

Blumenthal also said he and other senators were unaware of Navigator's close ties to Russia.

"I am astonished and appalled because I feel misled," said Blumenthal. "Our committee was misled, the American people were misled by the concealment of those companies."

The senator said he will ask the Commerce Department's inspector general to investigation the situation.

Ross did not returns calls to NBC News.

But in a statement issued through a Commerce Department spokesman to CNBC, Ross said that he recuses himself as Commerce secretary from any matter regarding transoceanic shipping. Ross said he works closely with ethics officials in the department "to ensure the highest ethical standards."

The spokesman also said that Ross has never met any of the Russian oligarchs mentioned in NBC's story.

And the spokesman said that "no funds managed by his [Ross'] company ever owned a majority of Navigator shares."

NBC's full story can be found on its website.