Trump’s China Trade Negotiator Hit with New Ethics Questions

Yet another swamp creature has emerged in the administration of Donald Trump – or re-emerged, having been hit by previous ethics violations. He is Wilbur Ross, Trump’s Commerce Secretary, the man in charge of forcing Beijing to do something about its trade surplus with the United States.

The 81-year-old Ross, called “Mister Magoo” by Trump after the nearsighted cartoon character for Ross’s habit of falling asleep in meetings, was notified in a stiff July 12 letter from David J. Apol, the acting director and general counsel of the US Office of Government Ethics, that Ross had in effect lied on his disclosure forms and could be liable to criminal prosecution.

Ross retains Trump’s affections, however, because of his actions in the 1980s when creditors were threatening Trump’s three Atlantic City casinos with foreclosure. Ross, then a senior managing director of the Rothschild's, Inc. banking interests, and financier Carl Icahn talked bondholders into striking a deal that allowed Trump to keep control of the casinos.

Ross first called the latest ethics discrepancies cited by the ethics office an “oversight” and vowed to sell all of his stocks. Then, in February 2017, Ross was forced to publicly downgrade his net worth, falling off the Forbes magazine billionaire list after his disclosure forms showed he had less than US$700 million in assets at the same time he was telling Forbes his net worth was US$2.5 billion.

In his letter to Ross, Apol said that despite a pledge in his Certification of Ethics Agreement Compliance that Ross had completed all of his divestitures, he hadn't. In fact two transaction reports later showed that Ross's sales of Invesco Ltd. stock took place “well after the date of your compliance document and the date by which you agreed to divest this asset.”

Ross’s failure to divest “created the potential for a serious criminal violation on your part and undermined public confidence.” As a high-level public official, the letter continued, Ross has an affirmative duty to protect the public trust and to serve as a model of ethical behavior.

Before becoming commerce secretary, Ross served as chief investment officer for Taiyo Pacific Funds, a major shareholder in the Tokyo-based J Trust Co., which is embroiled in an investigation into criminal allegations by Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission over J Trust’s purchase of the scandal-scarred Bank Mutiara. Invesco is also an investor in J Trust, along with the California Public Employees Retirement System, or CalPERS.

A series of investigative articles by Asia Sentinel raised questions about J Trust’s purchase of Bank Mutiara. Although J Trust said it had paid US$368 million for the bank, it appeared they had actually paid less than 10 percent of that amount, raising questions about the bank's true ownership.

Ross, however, was in hot water earlier – last November, when the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists liberated documents from the offshore law firm Appleby’s that indicated Ross had a hidden ownership in a shipping line with connections to Vladimir Putin’s son-in-law. He also came under fire prior to his taking the commerce job for his vice chairmanship of the Bank of Cyprus. In 2015, while he served at the bank, its Russia-based businesses were sold to a Russian banker and consultant, Arte Avetisyan, who had ties to both the Russian president and Russia’s largest bank, Sberbank, which was under US and EU sanctions following Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Trump’s repeated vows to “drain the swamp” in Washington, DC as president have come back to haunt him, with a growing list of seemingly unstoppable scandals in addition to the much-publicized Special Counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

The most spectacular involves Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, who was forced to resign after a long series of transgressions stretching back months. Pruitt is the focus of a score of investigations into improprieties. He was the fifth cabinet secretary to quit or be forced out for ethics violations. Several top allies have resigned with Pruitt. So far, according to a New York Times tally, 22 of Trump’s top aides have quit or been fired since the president came into office on Jan. 20, 2016.

Those scandals include the resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn after the Washington Post reported that the Justice Department had informed the White House that Flynn could be subject to blackmail. He was later alleged to have been lobbying for Turkey and other foreign governments.

Billionaire investor Carl Icahn -- Trump's benefactor in helping to ave his casinos -- resigned from his role as a White House adviser amid allegations that he was pushing for regulatory changes that benefited his investments. Tom Price resigned as Health and Human Services secretary after reports surfaced that he used private and government planes for travel. He has since been told to reimburse the government for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Interior Department’s inspector general’s office announced it opened an investigation into Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s use of taxpayer-funded charter planes. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Brenda Fitzgerald resigned following a report that she bought shares in a tobacco company one month into her tenure. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson has been criticized for lavish refurbishment of his office as well as allowing his son to help organize an agency ‘listening tour’ in Baltimore last summer despite warnings from department lawyers that doing so risked violating federal ethics rules.