News Roundup: Wilbur Ross’ Uncertified Financial Disclosures

The Office of Government Ethics on Tuesday said that it had refused to certify Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ 2018 financial disclosures. OGE Director Emory Rounds said the form was not accurate because Ross had not divested the BankUnited stock he owned when he said he would.

The decision came after the Center for Public Integrity had reported that Ross still owned the stock, worth up to $15,000, even as he twice submitted sworn statements that he had divested. Ross has responded that he is complying with ethics rules, but American Oversight has obtained his calendars, which show numerous potential conflicts.

Prior to joining the Trump administration, Ross had significant investments in the steel and energy industries. An October 2017 calendar entry shows Ross had a call with the CEO of steel producer and manufacturer NLMK, and Ross met multiple times with the CEO of natural gas exporter Cheniere Energy, which was linked to Navigator, a shipping company that Ross had a financial interest in — and made a profit from while in office. The secretary also discussed business matters with Chevron executives while his wife owned a $250,000-plus stake in the company. Numerous other meetings with industry and financial groups also appear in the calendars.

American Oversight is continuing to investigate Ross’ ethical conflicts. Here is what else we’ve been working on:

  • American Oversight obtained HHS Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan’s calendars for October 2017 through April 2018, a period of time when he served as acting secretary after former Secretary Tom Price resigned amid a private jet scandal. They reveal which meetings were deemed top priority, and they show his role in the department’s unaccompanied immigrant children program. The calendars also show that he met with anti-abortion groups as well as the law firm that represented the Catholic Benefits Association in its lawsuit seeking to overturn the requirement that health insurers provide birth control coverage.
  • It’s not unusual for congressional offices to contact federal agencies with constituent requests. But emails we obtained reveal that Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao’s office gave special priority to requests from the office of her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. In one instance, McConnell’s state director emailed to request a meeting between Chao and a Kentucky industry group, adding that he wanted to make them “feel special.” And in another email, a DOT official told McConnell staffers to notify him of Kentucky-specific requests “so we can monitor or follow up as necessary.” Chao’s calendars — which we obtained in an earlier lawsuit — indicate that she had at least ten meetings with Kentucky officials and business leaders following requests from McConnell’s office, including one with a county judge described as a “loyal supporter.”
  • American Oversight also filed a FOIA request for communications between Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and the office of his cousin, Georgia Senator David Perdue. In October 2018, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, using calendars obtained by American Oversight, reported that Sonny Perdue “has been a frequent presence in Georgia” during his time in the administration. This request seeks to shed light on whether the senator or his major donors have enjoyed greater access to the Department of Agriculture and influence over its policy decisions.
  • In December, following news that then-attorney general nominee William Barr had sent an unsolicited memo to the Justice Department criticizing the special counsel investigation into Russian election interference, American Oversight submitted a FOIA request for communications regarding the department’s determination that the memo would not pose a conflict for Barr overseeing the investigation. This week, the DOJ’s Professional Responsibility Advisory Office responded that they had identified related documents, but were withholding them in full.
  • North Carolina election authorities have unanimously called for the state’s Ninth District to hold a new election, after days of evidence that Republican Mark Harris’ congressional campaign had underwritten coordinated absentee ballot fraud on his behalf — and on Thursday, Harris himself said a new election was necessary. Notably absent, wrote Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap in the Washington Post, have been the voices of the “voter fraud crowd,” specifically the members of the now-defunct Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, on which Dunlap served. Despite his membership on the commission, Dunlap had been excluded from much of the group’s work, and American Oversight represented him in his November 2017 lawsuit demanding relevant documents. A series of federal court decisions have ordered the commission to turn over the materials.
  • On Thursday, House Judiciary Chair Jerrold Nadler sent a letter to White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and Attorney General William Barr revealing his concerns about a February 7 letter he received from the Justice Department’s Office of Legislative Affairs. Nadler said that the DOJ letter expressed “positions that appear fundamentally incompatible with established law and with the executive branch’s own policies” regarding executive privilege.
  • Despite HUD official Lynne Patton’s stated desire for American Oversight “to get a life,” we’re now expanding our investigation of HUD’s approval of the sale of a New York property tied to Trump. The president owned a 4 percent stake in Starrett City, a federally subsidized housing complex in Brooklyn, and in May 2018 it was reported that he had made about $20 million from its sale. Patton, who worked for the Trump family as an event planner before her controversial appointment at HUD, was recused from discussing Starrett City. We’re now seeking any communications that various New York housing agencies had with Patton related to the 2018 sale.
  • New lawsuits: This week, American Oversight sued the Department of Health and Human Services for communications with anti-abortion groups, and sued the State Department for records of communications that Steve Bannon and Sean Hannity had with U.S. diplomats in Europe — including Richard Grenell, the current ambassador to Germany who is reportedly being considered for the United Nations ambassadorship.

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