Wilbur Ross, U.S. Commerce Secretary. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Democrats, Don’t Forget About Wilbur Ross

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Practically from the moment Donald Trump began running for president, David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post has been digging into his business practices.

Fahrenthold was the first to disclose improprieties at the Trump Foundation. He’s documented spending by Saudi interests in Trump’s various hotel properties. He’s covered the ups and downs of Trump’s businesses since he became president. In 2017, his Trump coverage won him a Pulitzer Prize. More important, when Democrats start investigating Trump after they take control of the House in January, Fahrenthold’s stories will serve as the foundation for at least some of those inquiries.

Over the last year or so, another journalist has homed in on the business practices of one of the Trump administration’s highest-profile cabinet members: Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. Ross is involved in many of the issues closest to the president’s heart: the North American Free Trade Agreement, trade negotiations with China, tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, and so on.

Yet to judge by the work of Dan Alexander of Forbes, Ross may also be Trump’s most corrupt cabinet member, which is saying something in a cabinet that includes Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and once included Scott Pruitt, who Trump finally got rid of this summer as the head of Environmental Protection Agency. In a different administration, Alexander’s exposés of Ross would dominate the front page, but they’ve gotten buried in the blizzard of news generated by the president. Yet just as Fahrenthold’s work will likely spark Trump-related investigations, so will Alexander’s stories trigger investigations into Ross. Or at least they should.

Although Alexander is only 28, Forbes has given him the perfect training for looking into Ross. A few years after joining the magazine, he was assigned to the team researching the net worth of the world’s billionaires. At the time, Ross was a fixture on the Forbes 400 list, which ranks the U.S.’s 400 wealthiest people. Last year, his net worth was said by the magazine to be $2.9 billion, a figure Forbes arrived at with Ross’s input.

When Trump nominated Ross to be commerce secretary, he was required to publicly disclose his finances. That’s when Alexander realized there were huge discrepancies between the information listed in his financial disclosures and the Ross-aided calculations the magazine used to grant him billionaire status. Indeed, the disclosures suggested that he was worth no more than $700 million.

When Alexander called Ross to ask about the difference — and to break the news that he was going to be dropped from the Forbes 400 — the commerce secretary explained that between the election and his nomination, he had transferred assets worth $2 billion into family trusts, which he was not required to disclose.

Unwilling to take Ross at his word, Alexander began digging around. Almost exactly a year ago — November 7, 2017 — he published his first big Ross story, which concluded that the missing $2 billion had never existed. “It seems clear that Ross lied to us,” Alexander wrote, “the latest in an apparent sequence of fibs, exaggerations, omissions, fabrications and whoppers that have been going on with Forbes since 2004” (when Ross first appeared on the 400 list). He also discovered that Ross had failed to disclose 19 lawsuits on a Senate questionnaire he filled out as part of the nominating process.

There’s no law against lying to Forbes magazine, of course; I would bet the rent that he’s not the only one who has exaggerated his net worth to get on the 400 list. But having discovered Ross’s penchant for lying, Alexander kept digging.

His next big story, which landed early this summer, detailed holdings Ross or his family had continued to own even after he was confirmed as commerce secretary — and even though they constituted major conflicts of interest. Navigator Holdings was a shipping company “connected to cronies of Vladimir Putin.” His family held a stake in the Bank of Cyprus, which was also connected to Putin allies. He had a stake — along with the Chinese government — in a company called Diamond S Shipping.

The previous fall, Alexander reported, Ross’s Wall Street firm had taken “a 30 percent interest alongside a state-owned company named Shanghai Shenda and got roughly $300 million in cash. That same month Chinese officials hosted trade talks with none other than Wilbur Ross.”

And one more fact, the most jaw-dropping of all. After learning that the New York Times was about to publish an investigation into his relationship with Navigator Holdings, Ross shorted the company’s stock. In other words, the commerce secretary was trading on the not-yet-public news that he was about to be exposed! In a follow-up story, Alexander reported that several senators were calling on the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate Ross for insider trading.

In July, Alexander got ahold of Ross’s calendar, and wrote a story nicely summed up by its headline: “Wilbur Ross’ Calendar Reveals Dozens of Meetings With Companies Tied To His Personal Fortune.” In March 2017, for instance, Ross met with Dennis Muilenburg, the chief executive of the Boeing Corp., “a company in which Ross’ wife held nearly $3 million worth of stock.” The next month, he was visited by Minister Ali Shareef Al Emadi of the Qatar Investment Authority, “a sovereign wealth fund that pumped money into one of Ross’ private equity vehicles.” He had at least three meetings with Bill Ford, the executive chairman of Ford Motor Co., for which a key supplier was partly owned by Ross.

Only when Alexander’s story was about to be published did Ross finally announce that he was selling off all of his equity holdings — holdings that in many cases he had failed to disclose as required by law. (Inadvertently, he claims.) “I thought that story would be the one to lead to an investigation,” Alexander says. But it didn’t.

In a story in early August, Alexander actually labeled the commerce secretary a “grifter.” But he sure did back it up:

In speaking with 21 people who know Ross, Forbes uncovered a pattern: Many of those who worked directly with him claim that Ross wrongly siphoned or outright stole a few million here and a few million there, huge amounts for most but not necessarily for the commerce secretary. … But all told, these allegations — which sparked lawsuits, reimbursements and an SEC fine — come to more than $120 million. If even half of the accusations are legitimate, the current United States secretary of commerce could rank among the biggest grifters in American history.

Alexander has continued to focus his journalism on Ross, writing most recently about yet another meeting in which he had an obvious conflict of interest. This meeting involving a railcar manufacturer called Greenbrier Companies in which Ross held a stake — and which he apparently lied about when questioned about its purpose. For its part, the Commerce Department no longer appears willing to respond to Alexander’s queries.

“We will no longer dignify Forbes’ recycled innuendo with a response,” a spokesperson said.

I realize that once they take control of the House of Representatives, the Democrats will have to pick their spots. If every committee starts investigating every plausible example of Trump administration wrongdoing, they’ll wind up looking like the Republicans when they were in the midst of their Benghazi obsession.

But even though he isn’t involved in the core Trump issues, like whether Russia aided the campaign, Ross has proved to be very much like the president in his seeming lack of an ethical compass. His conflicts, his lies, his indifference to propriety, and his seeming willingness to take advantage of his office to make money — they all add to a government official who practically demands to be investigated by Congress.

Democrats: Read Dan Alexander’s stories. And then do the right thing.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. He is co-author of “Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA.”

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