By Glenn Fleishman
August 13, 2018

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross may have committed crimes in violating federal conflict of interest laws and by lying and omitting details in disclosure forms, a government watchdog alleged today in a complaint. The group, the Campaign Legal Center (CLC), asked the agency’s inspector general to investigate. Ross’s attorney, Theodore Kassinger, denied any improprieties in a statement to CNN.

In outlining conflicts, the CLC has pointed to a number of financial interests Ross either maintains or about which he has provided what it labels vague, inconsistent, or incomplete disclosures. It’s impossible to determine from his public filings whether Ross has divested from a number of interests he was required to under an ethics review, despite having promised in writing that he’d done so in November 2017. (This was reported in June by Forbes.)

In one instance, the group’s complaint notes that Ross held stock in a rail-car manufacturer, Greenbrier, the financial health of which is highly dependent on steel prices. He sold stock in the company on three occasions in 2017, one the day after dining with the CEO at the White House, each time claiming he had discovered he had additional holdings. CLC found this “implausible” that he wouldn’t have known what he held after the first or second discovery, and that it couldn’t find a public record about Ross recusing himself from a then-underway investigation into Chinese steel sales.

CLC also states that Ross may have made “false statements or omissions” regarding his testimony in a congressional hearing and in a compliance certification. The group said he continued to hold interests in companies after he had stated he had divested them or even acquired new holdings.

The U.S. Office of Government Ethics reprimanded Ross in July, with its acting director stating that “your failure to divest created the potential for a serious criminal violation on your part and undermined public confidence.” The office lacks enforcement power, and said its examination of Ross’s records didn’t reveal that the cabinet secretary was lying or engaged in criminal activity.

Ross began the week already under fire from a report days ago in Forbes that he allegedly stole $120 million from partners across many years and deals. He has also been accused by Forbes of lying about his net worth to obtain a position on its list of the world’s wealthiest people.

The Trump administration has had significant disclosure issues among cabinet officials and other appointed positions, due to the extreme wealth among those tapped for public office. The wealthy and ultra wealthy in previous administrations typically divested of all direct holdings and interests around the time of assuming office, or recused themselves from often tangentially involved decisions. This has led to a large number of conflict of interest and other matters, many of which remain under investigation by inspectors general and law-enforcement agencies.

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