Commerce Secretary Flouts Government Ethics Rules
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Commerce Secretary Flouts Government Ethics Rules

Fake Billionaire Wilbur Ross Ignores the Law and Lies About His Stock Holdings

By David Cay Johnston, DCReport Editor-in-Chief

David Cay Johnston

Wilbur Ross, Donald Trump’s Commerce secretary, is required by federal law to report to the attorney general that he has engaged in illegal conduct that could get him five years in prison.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for Ross to comply or for prosecutors to act. In this administration, the de facto ethics policy is, “We do as we please, the law and common decency be damned.”

Ross falsely reported not once, but twice that he had sold his shares of Bank United stock in May 2017. He identified the shares as sold in his September 2017 report (see Page 2). Then he filed his annual financial disclosure report in August 2018. His original 2017 reports are here and here.

In this administration, the de facto ethics policy is, ‘We do as we please, the law and common decency be damned.’

The second false report came after he was warned in writing by the Office of Government Ethics about being accurate. The forms in question are signed under penalty of perjury.

Ross’s 72-page disclosure form was rejected by the head of the ethics office, Emory Rounds, on Feb. 15.

The Center for Public Integrity revealed in December that Ross falsely claimed he had sold the stock. He got tripped up on his two-time lie when he reported a United Bank dividend.

Lying on disclosure forms is a sort of Trump White House specialty.

Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and government-paid adviser on almost everything, and his wife Ivanka have repeatedly had to amend their ethics reports. Ivanka Trump was fined once, her husband twice, for false filings.

Trump repeatedly told voters that he was worth more than $10 billion. But once he became president, Trump filed a statement showing his net worth was only about 10% of the claimed amount. He filed after his lawyers asked if Trump could submit his ethics report without signing it.

Even that report overstated his net worth significantly. He listed exceptionally generous valuations for his properties, which other records, including some of his own filings with local governments, indicate were worth far less.

Ross, whom I first interviewed three decades ago, has often publicly claimed he was worth billions from his years as a “vulture capitalist.” His specialty was squeezing money out of bankrupt firms, often to the detriment of workers and vendors.

His now-rejected financial statements suggest his net worth is in the hundreds of millions, not billions.

For Ross, what is brazen is that he was on notice about the need to be accurate and truthful. He was explicitly warned, according to the Office of Government Ethics letter explaining the reasons it will not certify Ross’ 2018 financial disclosure filing.

“OGE is declining to certify Secretary Ross’ 2018 financial-disclosure report because that report was not accurate, and he was not in compliance with his ethics agreement at the time of the report,” the OGE wrote.

Ross, in the blasé manner of numerous Trump appointees, issued a statement. He lamely asserted that he is just doing what Commerce Department ethics advisers tell him. We look forward to seeing an email or letter from any such adviser telling him to make a false report.

Two years ago, we reported on how Ross had been vice chairman of the Bank of Cyprus, a favorite for Russian money laundering. A link to the full report by our investigative economics editor, Jim Henry, is in the short version of the story we ran back then.

The other Bank of Cyprus vice chair was an appointee of Vladimir Putin. The bank’s chief executive was the disgraced former head of Deutsche Bank, the only bank known to have loaned money directly to Trump in the last decade.

Deutsche, which has paid more than $600 million in fines for laundering Russian money and an eye-popping $22 billion in fines for other improprieties. Why would Ross hire an executive with that kind of track record, especially in helping Russians launder money?

The amount of stock Ross lied about is piddling, assuming Ross wasn’t also lying about the value of his shares. He put them down as less than $15,000.

The ethics disclosure rules Congress has enacted, going back many decades, make no room for reporting you sold something that you still own.

Ross has only one legal option to avoid informing William Barr, the newly named attorney general. Congress says that Ross “shall” report his illegal conduct:

…each Secretary concerned… shall refer to the Attorney General the name of any individual which such official or committee has reasonable cause to believe has willfully failed to file a report or has willfully falsified or willfully failed to file information required to be reported.

The only out for Ross, would be that he believes his action even after being warned was not willful. How could it be anything but? Well, to be generous, it could be just callous disregard for the laws that Ross swore to uphold.

“Individuals who fail to file a report, file a false report, or fail to report required information risk serious consequences,” the Ethics office advises all affected officials.

The attorney general can prosecute any official who “knowingly and willfully falsifies information required to be reported or… knowingly and willfully fails to file or report.”

Again, don’t hold your breath.

February 25, 2019