Terry H. Schwadron
Oct. 29, 2018
Apparently, we will be hearing a lot more about Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ ethical lapses before long, particularly if Democrats take the House in 10 days.
The secretary has emerged as a strong, but flawed member of the Trump cabinet, and is in the news this week over a court challenge to his recollections about how he came to ask for adding an immigration status question to the 2020 Census. On the president’s behalf, he has taken a big role in explaining away steel and aluminum tariffs and China trade policy choices, among others.
The Census issue now in court involves a reported falsehood that Ross offered in explaining the source of the Census request. That Census request is seen as contributing to a potential undercount of illegal immigration, in turn, affecting voter counts, all in a partisan attempt to help Republicans.
But he also has collected a list of ethical problems, mostly stemming from a failed promise to put his family’s extensive investments into blind trusts to keep him from appearing to help himself as well as business associates with Commerce Department business.
Ross is bound to be a leading candidate for investigation should Democrats win the House and use the majority status to launch legal challenges for the White House and Cabinet. Ross was selected for the Cabinet as another billionaire who remain independent mostly because he doesn’t need the financial gain commonly associated with graft in office.
Now, Forbes magazine has uncovered yet another ethical head-scratcherby Ross for meeting with officials in which he or his wife hold substantial stock holdings — a no-no under government ethics rules. The magazine says that Ross may have violated a criminal conflict-of-interest law when discussing oil and gas developments, tax reform and trade issues with Chevron executives in a March 2017 meeting, while his wife still owned a more than $250,000 stake in the company.
Axios listed a quick list ofother ethical lapses:
- March 2017: Ross met with Chevron executives.
- Summer 2017: According to a calendar recently released by government watchdog group American Oversight, Ross had another appointment, this time with the CEO of Boeing, despite his wife having owned a more than $2 million stake in the company.
- November 2017: Ross told federal ethics officials that he had divested assets despite he still owning them. He later admitted his mistake in a filing.
- June 28, 2018: Three Democrats asked the SEC to launch an insider trading investigation into Ross’s finances after Forbes’ reported about “a suspicious transaction” involving Ross and the shipping company Navigator Holdings, which has ties to Vladimir Putin.
- July 12, 2018: The U.S. Office of Government Ethics issued Ross a warning: “[Y]our actions, including your continued ownership of assets required to be divested in your Ethics Agreement and your opening of short sale positions, could have placed you in a position to run afoul of the primary criminal conflict of interest law.”
- Aug. 13, 2018: A campaign finance watchdog filed a complaint alleging Ross may have illegally held stock in companies that could have been affected by Trump administration directives.
Other Cabinet officers, including former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt departed the administration after facing months of questions over similar legal and financial issues. Housing chief Ben Carson is under scrutiny for spending government money on personal items and furniture, and former Veterans Administration head David Shulkin lost their jobs because of such ethical problems.
In response to the July findings, Ross said that even though his ethics agreement allows him to retain private equity holdings, he will now sell all his holdings and put them in Treasury securities in order “to maintain the public trust.” David J. Apol, acting director and general counsel of the ethics office, told Ross that “your failure to divest created the potential for a serious criminal violation on your part and undermined public confidence.
Ross may also have violated criminal conflict of interest law in stock holdings, a Campaign Legal Center complaint says , adding that holding stock in companies that could be affected by Trump administration actions is problematic.The nonprofit Campaign Legal Center’s complaint says public records suggest Ross also may have violated three laws barring false statements or omissions in congressional testimony and financial disclosure filings.Ross’s holdings of Invesco, Greenbrier, Air Lease and Sun Bancorp all are mentioned in the complaint, which seeks an investigation from Commerce’s Office of the Inspector General.
So mark this one down as among the first investigation that Democrats will open, should they win.