Commerce chief Wilbur Ross' financial holdings get new scrutiny in report that highlights short sale of Russian-linked shipping firm

Key Points
  • A new report in Forbes says Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross for much of 2017 served in that job while maintaining potentially controversial financials stakes in a range of companies.
  • While Ross last November told the U.S. Office of Government Ethics in writing that he had divested himself of every holding he had promised to do, "that was not true," Forbes said.
  • Ross sold short a shipping firm linked to an energy firm controlled by the son-in-law of Vladimir Putin, the article said.
Wilbur Ross
Mike Blake | Reuters

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross last year owned stakes in companies co-owned by China's government, a shipping firm linked to Russians that he later short sold days before his own controversial ties to it were exposed — and also held more than $10 million in stock of his former employer, Invesco, despite earlier swearing he had divested his financial holdings, a new report said Monday.

While Ross last November told the U.S. Office of Government Ethics in writing that he had divested himself of every holding he had promised to do, "that was not true," according to the Forbes.com article.

Forbes also said that Ross' family "apparently continues to have an interest" in "toxic holdings" that seemingly include the "shipping firm tied to Vladimir Putin's inner circle," a "Cypriot bank reportedly caught up in the Robert Mueller investigation" and China-linked companies.

"He continued to deal with China, Russia and others while evidently knowing that his family's interests were tied to those countries," said Forbes, citing financial disclosure filings.

And "for most of last year, Ross served as secretary of commerce while maintaining stakes" in those same firms, Forbes reported.

Ross, who was confirmed as Commerce secretary in February 2017, also has been tasked by President Donald Trump with investigating the importation of auto parts even while his family apparently maintains holdings in International Automotive Components Group, a giant, Luxembourg-based maker of interior auto parts, Forbes noted.

The article said that last September, while Ross still personally held investments in that parts company, the firm closed a new joint venture in which his WL Ross and Co. investment vehicle took a 30 percent interest alongside Chinese-government-owned company Shanghai Shenda "and got roughly $300 million in cash."

"The same month, top Chinese officials hosted trade talks with none other than Wilbur Ross," Forbes said.

Forbes said that Ross' spokesman did not answer a series of detailed questions about his holdings, but did say that his current assets would be listed on a financial disclosure form that at the time the article was posted online had yet to be posted on the Office of Government Ethics website. The article said the spokesman "underscored that Ross eventually divested of his holdings."

And the spokesman told the news site said that Ross "did not lie" to federal officials in his prior disclosure filings about his holdings, saying that Ross has filed amended documents with the Office of Government Ethics.

Ross, in an emailed statement to CNBC, said, "I first sold Navigator stock on May 31, as reported on my public filing. I later learned in late October that there were more shares belonging to me in an account that the company had opened in electronic form at a firm acting as its agent."

"I decided to continue selling those shares, but since I did not have physical possession of them in order to make delivery in the required time period, I technically sold them short and when the shares were delivered by the agent on November 16 I delivered those shares to the broker to close out the transaction," Ross said. "Therefore, it made no economic difference to me whether the shares went up or down between the sale date and the date I delivered them."

The Commerce Department, in its own emailed statement to CNBC, said, "The Secretary continues to follow the guidance of Department of Commerce ethics officials to ensure compliance with federal laws and regulations."

The department's statement included links to two Form 278-T transaction reports that the Office of Government Ethics posted today, which reflect Ross's updated financial transactions.

"As you can see, the Department's ethics officials and the Office of Government Ethics have certified that the transactions documented are in compliance with federal ethics requirements," the Commerce Department said.

Ross' ownership holdings while Commerce secretary gained widespread notice last November in reports that he had failed to disclose that he had shared business interests with Putin's immediate family.

In the "Paradise Papers" leak of millions of documents held by a Bermuda-based law firm it was revealed that Ross had retained an interest in the shipping firm Navigator Holdings, one of whose most important business relationships is a Russian energy company controlled by Putin's son-in-law and other Russians close to Putin.

Ross later told CNBC in November that he had disclosed an interest in Navigator three times on his financial disclosure form. But Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told NBC News that he and other members of Congress were under the impression that Ross had divested all of his interests in Navigator and were unaware of the company's ties to Russians.

On the heels of the news about Navigator, a Trump administration official told the Reuters news agency that Ross was in the process of selling off his holdings in Navigator, and also had already divested his interest in an oil tanker company called Diamond S Shipping.

But Forbes' new article says that official filings by Ross show that he had already divested funds that held Navigator stock several days before the news broke about his stake.

"Six days later, he opened a short position against [Navigator]. That meant if shares of Navigator plummeted on the Paradise Papers news, Ross could presumably cash out with a gain," the article said.

New York Times reporter Mike McIntire tweeted about the Forbes story on Monday, noting that Ross' short sale of Navigator came days after McIntire asked him about his investment in that company.

McIntire tweet

Navigator's stock drifted down 4 percent over the 11 days before Ross exited his short position in the company's shares, according to the Forbes article.

And, "His family still appears to have an interest in Navigator," Forbes said.

The article also said that Ross previously had, "armed with cash from the Chinese ... dumped millions into Diamond S Shipping." The Connecticut company's website notes that its shareholders includes affiliates of WL Ross and Co., the investment firm Ross previously headed.

Forbes said, Ross "apparently handed over an interest in [Diamond S] to his family," last year.

The family also is believed to have an interest in the Bank of Cyprus , according to the article.

Forbes said that the largest shareholder in that bank is Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg.

Vekselberg was reportedly stopped this year at a U.S. airport and questioned by investigators working for Mueller, the special counsel probing Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Vekselberg has been linked to Columbus Nova, a U.S. investment firm founded by his cousin. Last month, it was revealed that Columbus Nova had paid Trump's longtime personal lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen $500,000 for what the firm said was consulting about "real estate."

Cohen is currently under criminal investigation by federal prosecutors in New York City, but has not been charged.

Read Forbes' full report on Ross's holdings here.