The Complicated World of Wilbur Ross’ Finances

The first two years of the Trump administration have seen their share of headline-grabbing scandals, courtesy of the president’s cabinet members. There have been stories of trips on private jets and $31,000 dining sets on the taxpayers’ dime; illegal private phone booths and unsevered ties to industry lobbyists. But less flashy and far more complicated is the investigation into Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ financial conflicts of interest.

For nearly two years, American Oversight has been looking into the complex world of the secretary’s finances, identifying a number of serious ethics issues. Ross, a billionaire whose fortune derived from restructuring distressed steel, coal and textile companies, has on multiple occasions failed to divest assets he said he would, and calendars we obtained reveal that he has held multiple meetings that raise concern about ethics conflicts.

On Wednesday, NPR and the Center for Public Integrity co-published an article about the difficulties of navigating the confusing maze of Ross’ financial disclosures. Included in their report is a photo of a whiteboard American Oversight created to map out a small portion the commerce secretary’s financial holdings (see photo above). As an example, Ross’s assets include a set of 21 real-estate funds that, in turn, are partly owned by five separate entities, which are themselves owned by various other corporations and partnerships — some of which are based in the Cayman Islands. At the time Ross filed the 2018 disclosure form, he had divested from some of these entities but not others, leaving open questions about how much ownership he retained in the underlying real-estate funds. And that’s just one small corner (the lower left) of a chart that covers just a quarter of Ross’s financial disclosures.  

“I wouldn’t even want to speculate how much time it would take to apply this analysis to all of the other components of Wilbur Ross’ holdings,” Austin Evers, American Oversight’s executive director, told NPR and the Center for Public Integrity.

Last week, the director of the Office of Government Ethics, Emory Rounds, said that it had refused to certify Ross’ 2018 financial disclosures because Ross had failed to divest the BankUnited stock he owned when he said he would, making the forms inaccurate. The Center for Public Integrity had previously reported that Ross still owned the stock, worth up to $15,000, even as he twice submitted sworn statements that he had divested. Another stock he owned rose in value by seven figures during his delay in divesting it in 2017.

Prior to joining the administration, Ross had significant investments in the steel and energy industry, but calendars we obtained show an October 2017 call with the CEO of steel manufacturer NLMK, as well as multiple meetings with the CEO of Cheniere Energy, a natural gas exporter linked to a shipping company Ross had a financial interest in — and made a profit from while in office.