Wilbur Ross, The Trump Official Who Keeps Ethics Watchdogs Up At Night In an extremely rare rebuke, a government ethics watchdog refused to certify Ross' recent financial disclosure. But he's still in office even as other Trump officials have resigned for ethical lapses.
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'Not In Compliance': Wilbur Ross, The Trump Official Who Keeps Watchdogs Up At Night

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'Not In Compliance': Wilbur Ross, The Trump Official Who Keeps Watchdogs Up At Night

'Not In Compliance': Wilbur Ross, The Trump Official Who Keeps Watchdogs Up At Night

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Two years ago today, President Trump's friend Wilbur Ross was sworn in as secretary of commerce. He's a skilled and wealthy investor. But at the Commerce Department, he has pushed the limits of federal ethics laws. NPR's Peter Overby and Carrie Levine of the Center for Public Integrity examined his conflicts with ethics officials. And Peter has their story.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: In January 2017, Wilbur Ross sat facing the Senate commerce committee. The senators had to decide if he was qualified to become secretary of commerce.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN THUNE: If confirmed, Mr. Ross would bring decades of business, entrepreneurial and civic experience to this important position.

OVERBY: Chairman John Thune, a Republican, opened the hearing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THUNE: Mr. Ross is perhaps best known for his expertise in revitalizing distressed businesses, such as those in the United States steel industry.

OVERBY: Wilbur Ross and Donald Trump became friends in the '90s. Ross had engineered a break for Trump, who was in distress over a casino bankruptcy. The committee members had questions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: Of all of the billions of dollars in holdings that you own now, you have divested more than 90 percent. You have resigned from 50 positions.

OVERBY: Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, was referring to the agreement Ross had signed with the Office of Government Ethics. Ross promised to sell or resign from scores of entities, most within three or six months.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BLUMENTHAL: The process has been enormously complex and challenging and costly to you personally, correct?

WILBUR ROSS: Yes, sir.

OVERBY: Ross vowed to recuse himself from any remaining conflicts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROSS: I intend to be quite scrupulous about recusal and any topic where there's the slightest scintilla of doubt.

OVERBY: But Ross' portfolio is like nesting dolls - companies within companies within companies. As for that signed ethics agreement, Ross has failed to divest assets when he said he would, despite telling ethics officials he had done so. Two years after the hearing, here's Blumenthal's take on it.

BLUMENTHAL: I feel that, essentially, he misled the committee.

OVERBY: And Senator Ron Wyden went further. He's the top Democrat on the finance committee.

RON WYDEN: The breadth and the brazenness of his ethical lapses are just staggering.

OVERBY: Thune, Blumenthal and Wyden have each asked for investigations of Ross' compliance with the ethics laws. Other Trump appointees have had flashier ethics problems - using a helicopter to go horseback riding or seeking a Chick-fil-A franchise for a spouse - but it's Ross who keeps ethics watchdogs up at night. Delaney Marsco is ethics counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, which filed a complaint against Ross last summer.

DELANEY MARSCO: He has escaped sort of the more popular scrutiny because there's kind of sophisticated violations, and they're a little bit wonky in terms of what the actual issue is.

OVERBY: Earlier this month, the government's chief ethics officer did something so rare, observers couldn't recall the last time it happened. Emory Rounds, director of the Office of Government Ethics, refused to certify Ross' annual financial disclosure. He said it wasn't accurate. Rounds acted seven months after his predecessor at the agency publicly criticized Ross for failing to abide by his signed ethics agreement. He said Ross was risking potential criminal violations.

Ross blamed an inadvertent error. He noted the asset cited by Rounds was worth only $3,700. But the dollar amount isn't the problem. Don Fox is a former general counsel and acting director at the ethics agency.

DON FOX: First of all, it says that neither Secretary Ross, nor the White House, take ethics in government seriously. It's, at best, window dressing for them.

OVERBY: Ross' ethics situation echoes Trump's own. They both have complex, opaque financial assets impossible to understand based on what's publicly known. Both have come under attack for failing to divest. And both have been accused of acting in their own interest instead of the public's.

There have been rumors that Trump might replace Ross, but when we asked the White House if there were any ethical concerns, their response lauded his work advocating for the president's agenda - no mention of ethics. Ross' problems started soon after he arrived at Commerce. He says he started finding assets that should've been divested. He defended himself on CNBC.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROSS: Everything that's been done has been done in compliance with the Office of Government Ethics. So these are people second-guessing.

OVERBY: The president put Ross in charge of an investigation of steel imports.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Wilbur and I have been working on this for a long time.

OVERBY: But Ross was slow in selling his stake in an investment firm called Invesco, and Invesco was getting into the Chinese steel industry. The Commerce Department later said there were no conflicts of interest, but Ross' remaining Invesco stake went up in value by at least a million dollars before he sold it.

And other issues emerged - a family trust about which little has been disclosed, a company Ross intended to keep called Diamond S Shipping. Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell challenged him on it at the confirmation hearing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARIA CANTWELL: Is that correct, you're not divesting from that?

ROSS: That is correct. The research we've done suggests that there has never been a shipping case come before the Department of Commerce.

OVERBY: The Commerce Department does oversee trade and tariffs, which directly affect how shipping firms make their money. Cantwell and five other senators have asked the Commerce Department's inspector general to investigate Ross.

Ross told NPR and the Center for Public Integrity that he rectified errors once he discovered them. He said he remained committed to the American people and would continue to seek the guidance of ethics officials. Professor Kathleen Clark specializes in government ethics law at Washington University in St. Louis.

KATHLEEN CLARK: This record by Ross and by others of multiple misstatements on ethics forms, I think, demonstrates what kind of commitment to ethics this administration has, which is, essentially, contempt.

OVERBY: Virginia Canter is a former ethics official, now an ethics counsel for the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. She said that when Congress wrote the Ethics in Government law 25 years ago...

VIRGINIA CANTER: They didn't envision a Wilbur Ross or his types of assets or his types of conflicts of interests or his disclosure deficiencies.

OVERBY: Canter and other ethics experts say changes are needed, especially more transparency and stronger enforcement - strong enough to bring high-net-worth appointees like Wilbur Ross into compliance with the ethics laws. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRICHOTOMY'S "INBOX ZERO")

INSKEEP: And that story was co-reported with the Center for Public Integrity.

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