WASHINGTON – US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose name cropped up on the weekend in the so-called “Paradise Papers” investigation into offshore tax havens, denied on Monday doing anything improper and said that the appropriate authorities knew of his controversial investments.
According to the investigation undertaken by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and reported on Sunday, Ross failed to fully disclose to Congress his investment interest in a shipping firm with close ties to people linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin and also investments in Venezuela’s state-run oil company PDVSA.
The Paradise Papers are a trove of millions of documents leaked to Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, which then called in the ICIJ to examine them, that show huge amounts of cash held in offshore tax havens by leaders, magnates and celebrities all over the world.
In February, when he joined the administration of President Donald Trump, Ross sold most of his millions of dollars worth of investments but retained an interest in the British maritime transport firm Navigator Holdings.
In the past, Ross served on the board of directors of Navigator Holdings, and his firm, W. L. Ross, was the main shareholder in the company starting in 2012.
Among the main clients of the shipping company is a Russian natural gas and oil company called SIBUR along with PDVSA, which was sanctioned by the US in August for being closely tied to the “corruption” of the Venezuelan government.
Ross said on Monday in an interview with CNBC that the claim that he tried to keep his relationship with the Venezuelan oil firm hidden is “totally wrong” and that he filled out in triplicate the documentation requested by the US Office of Government Ethics to disclose his business interests.
Regarding SIBUR, a company that has provided more than $68 million to Navigator in the last three years, two of its owners are Putin’s son-in-law Kirill Shamalov and Russian magnate Gennady Timchenko, one of Putin’s inner circle who has been sanctioned by Washington for his activities linked to the Russian leader.
“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 told CNBC.
The Department of Commerce initially said in a statement on Sunday that Ross “was not involved with Navigator’s decision to engage in business with SIBUR, a publicly-traded company, which was not under sanction at the time and is not currently.”
“Moreover, Secretary Ross has never met the SIBUR shareholders referenced in this story and, until now, did not know of their relationship,” the statement said. “The Secretary recuses himself from matters focused on transoceanic shipping vessels, but has been supportive of the Administration’s sanctions against Russian and other entities.”
When asked if he had considered resigning because of the fact that these controversial holdings have come to light, a visibly perturbed Ross said that was a “silly question” since he had done “nothing wrong.”