Top Ethics Watchdog Rejects Ross's Financial Disclosure Form

(Bloomberg) -- The top federal ethics watchdog has rejected U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s 2017 financial disclosure form.

The Office of Government Ethics declined to certify Ross’s latest financial disclosure because after reporting that he had sold off his shares in BankUnited Inc. that year, he actually sold the stock in October 2018. According to a later filing, he said he mistakenly believed that the shares had been sold earlier.

In a letter sent to the Commerce Department’s top ethics officer, OGE Director Emory Rounds wrote that Ross’s 2017 report,“inaccurately reported that he sold all of his stock when in fact he had not done so.” Rounds also said that Ross was not in compliance with his ethics agreement when he filed the annual report in 2018.

Ross said in a statement Tuesday that his BankUnited shares were worth about $3,700, which he said was below the threshold for a possible conflict of interest, which is $15,000 for publicly traded securities. He said the way he first reported the shares was “the only known error in my annual report.”

“While I am disappointed that my report was not certified, I remain committed to complying with my ethics agreement,” Ross said.

OGE, which received Ross’s annual disclosure in September, didn’t finish its review until Friday. It posted the document and Rounds’ letter on Tuesday.

Not Unprecedented

An OGE spokeswoman said declining to certify a financial disclosure form isn’t unprecedented, but occurs only when a filer is either under investigation, not in compliance with ethics laws, or has filed a report that OGE can’t verify. The agency is required to destroy disclosures after six years, making it difficult to research historical records. She said Rounds’s letter, which was addressed to David Maggi, the chief of the ethics law and program divisions in Commerce, explained the agency’s position.

OGE has no enforcement authority, and relies on inspectors general or the Justice Department to investigate whether federal ethics rules or conflict of interest laws have been broken. In his letter, Rounds said that Maggi had informed him that Commerce was providing its inspector general with copies of all of Ross’s financial disclosure reports.

Unwinding his complex financial holdings has caused problems for Ross before. He listed assets worth at least $336 million on a 57-page disclosure before his Senate confirmation hearing in January 2017. Government officials disclose their assets within broad ranges, with the largest tier valued at $50 million and up.

Multiple Corrections

Ross has had to file multiple reports correcting previous filings, and his repeated failure to sell his assets before deadlines set by his divestiture agreement earned him a rare, public rebuke from OGE. In July, David Apol, then the acting director, wrote to Ross that his lapses may have “created the potential for a serious criminal violation” and undermined public trust in President Donald Trump’s administration.

Apol did point out that a review of Ross’s calendars, briefing books and correspondence by the top ethics official at Commerce found no evidence that he violated conflict of interest laws.

Since certifying in 2017 that he’d divested all assets he was required to under his initial ethics agreement with OGE, Ross filed documents disclosing several late sales, with the delays varying from a few months to more than a year.

In December 2017, he disclosed sales of between $10 million and $50 million worth of shares in the investment management company Invesco Ltd., eight months after he’d promised to do so. At the time, he said that he mistakenly believed the holdings had already been sold. The shares increased in value by 15.5 percent in the interim.

Unaware of Assets

The same month, Ross disclosed late sales of shares worth at least $250,000 in Greenbrier Companies Inc., an Oregon-based transportation manufacturing company, and at least $1,000 worth of stock in Sun Bancorp Inc. In each case, Ross said he’d been unaware that he still held the assets.

The Campaign Legal Center, an organization in Washington that favors greater regulation of money in politics, filed a complaint Feb. 7 asking the Commerce Department’s inspector general, Peggy Gustafson, to investigate whether Ross made false statements when he disclosed the BankUnited sale.

Ross likely will be quizzed on OGE’s rejection of his financial disclosure during a March 14 hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. The hearing was set by the chairman’s new Democratic chairman, Elijah Cummings of Maryland, primarily to focus on Ross’s decision to add a citizenship question to the U.S. census.

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