Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Monday said that he clearly disclosed during his confirmation hearing that he shares business interests with Vladimir Putin's immediate family, denying an investigative report that he had concealed the ties.
On Sunday, a global consortium of investigative journalists, including NBC News, reported that Ross, a billionaire industrialist, retains an interest in a shipping company, Navigator Holdings, that was partially owned by his former investment company. One of Navigator's most important business relationships is with a Russian energy firm named SIBUR that is controlled, in turn, by Putin's son-in-law and other members of the Russian president's inner circle.
His ties to the Russian firm were obscured in a highly complex arrangement set up by a Bermuda law firm that specializes in concealing business interests from the public, and at least three U.S. senators, including the minority leader, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., have complained that Ross misled Congress in his disclosure. Leaked documents from the law firm allowed reporters to follow the connection and make public Ross' ties to the Russian firm.
In an interview with CNBC published Monday, Ross said claims that he didn't properly disclose the ties were "totally incorrect" and called the media's reporting of it "just an example of the press trying to find anything they can, however remote or silly, to attack the president and somehow link him to Russia."
"That's totally wrong," he said. "It was disclosed on the form 278, which is the financial disclosure form, in my case, three times."
The investigative report, however, said the form contained only partial information and did not make clear that Ross was retaining ownership of a company that had a close business relationship with the Russian leadership.
Ross explained there was nothing improper about Navigator's relationship with SIBUR because the relationship began before SIBUR was sanctioned by the U.S.
"A company not under sanction is just like any other company, period. It was a normal commercial relationship and one that I had nothing to do with the creation of, and do not know the shareholders who were apparently sanctioned at some later point in time," Ross said.
He also said that any suggestion he should consider resigning as commerce chief was a "silly question."
"There is nothing wrong with anything that was done," Ross said. "There is nothing that wasn't disclosed."
Some of the details of Ross's continuing financial holdings were revealed in a trove of more than 7 million internal documents of Appleby, a Bermuda-based law firm, that was leaked to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.
The documents consist of emails, presentations and other electronic data. These were then shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists — a global network that won the Pulitzer Prize this year for its work on the Panama Papers — and its international media partners. NBC News was given access to some of the leaked documents, which the ICIJ calls the "Paradise Papers."
In Ross's case, the documents give a far fuller picture of his finances than the filings he submitted to the government on Jan. 15 as part of his confirmation process. On that date, Ross, President-elect Donald Trump's choice for commerce secretary, submitted a letter to the designated ethics official at the department, explaining steps he was taking to avoid all conflicts of interest.
The documents seen by NBC News, however, along with a careful examination of filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, tell a different story than the one Ross told at his confirmation. Ross divested most of his holdings, but did not reveal to the government the full details of the holdings he kept.
The four holdings on the list of assets that Ross held onto were valued by him on the form as between $2.05 million and $10.1 million. These four, in turn, are linked through ownership chains to two other entities, WLR Recovery Fund IV DSS AIV L.P. and WLR Recovery Fund V DSS AIV L.P., which were listed in Ross' financial disclosure prior to confirmation, but were not among the assets he declared he would retain. According to an SEC filing, those entities hold 17.5 million shares in Navigator, which constitutes control of nearly one-third of the shipping firm.
A cursory look at Navigator's annual reports reveal an apparent conflict of interest. Navigator's second-largest client is SIBUR. According to Navigator's 2017 SEC filing, SIBUR was listed among its top five clients, based on total revenue for the previous two years. In 2016, Navigator's annual reports show SIBUR brought in $23.2 million in revenue and another $28.7 million the following year.
One of the owners of SIBUR is Gennady Timchenko, a Russian billionaire on the Treasury Department's sanctions list. He has been barred from entering the U.S. since 2014 because authorities consider him a Specially Designated National, or SDN, who is considered by Treasury to be a member "of the Russian leadership's inner circle."
Another major SIBUR shareholder is Leonid Mikhelson, who, like Timchenko, has close ties to the Kremlin. One of his companies, Novatek, Russia's second-largest natural gas producer, was placed on the Treasury's sanctions list in 2014.
In his interview with CNBC, Ross denied knowing either Timchenko or Mikhelson.
Meanwhile, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told MSNBC's "Morning Joe" Monday that the inspector general at the Department of Commerce should investigate Ross immediately and that Ross should resign if he can't explain the holdings.
"There ought to be hearings and if he fails to provide a convincing and compelling explanation, he ought to resign," Blumenthal said. "Because this stake in a company, with such close ties to Putin's son-in-law, a Russian oligarch, subject to sanctions, raises profound questions about whether he can put the nation's interests above his own and whether he'll be beholden to that energy company if things go south in the energy industry as they sometimes do."
Schumer and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee issued a statement accusing Ross of "dodging taxes" and they condemned the Republican tax plan.
"By failing to close the egregious loopholes outlined in the Paradise Papers, the Republican plan rewards wealthy billionaires like Secretary Wilbur Ross for dodging taxes, while punishing many in the middle class with new tax hikes," the Schumer-Wyden statement said. "If you deduct medical expenses or student loan interest from your taxable income, the Republican plan comes after your wallet. But if you stash your billions in secret bank accounts overseas, their plan gives you the green light to keep doing what you've been doing."