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Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is on the defensive. Newly leaked documents are raising questions about a shipping firm he's invested in. The records show the firm does business with a Russian energy company that's linked to both Russian President Vladimir Putin and a Russian oligarch on the U.S. sanctions list. As NPR's Brian Naylor reports, Ross says he did nothing wrong.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: The documents in question were among a trove that were leaked from Appleby, a Bermuda-based law firm. They show a complex web of investments, partnerships and holding companies that have helped some of the world's richest people shelter their assets. Ross' involvement relates to his ownership of a stake in Navigator Holdings, a global shipping company. Ross reported investments in the firm of between $2 million and $10 million in his government ethics disclosure form. But critics say he didn't disclose enough.
He didn't mention that Navigator ships natural gas for Sibur, a Russian energy company. Sibur's owners include Russian President Vladimir Putin's son-in-law and Gennady Timchenko, a Putin friend who is subject to economic sanctions. Ross, in an interview with the BBC, said there was nothing improper about the business relationship between Navigator and Sibur.
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WILBUR ROSS: Well, there's nothing wrong with it. The fact that it happens to be called a Russian company does not mean that there's any evil in it.
NAYLOR: Kathleen Clark, a professor at Washington University Law School and an expert on government ethics, says Ross may not have done anything illegal, but his lack of disclosure does raise questions.
KATHLEEN CLARK: I'm not aware of anything indicating that Wilbur Ross violated the disclosure standards or that he failed to disclose what was legally required to be disclosed. On the other hand, I think that the Senate would've been very interested to know about this relationship.
NAYLOR: And Clark says there is still much that is not known about Ross' investment.
CLARK: What we don't know is whether he has participated in any matters that could have an effect on Sibur's value, on the financial interest of this Russian company or these Russian oligarchs or Putin's son-in-law.
NAYLOR: Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, says Ross should have done more.
NOAH BOOKBINDER: You have a situation where ties between this administration and Russia have obviously been an issue of a lot of concern to a lot of people. You had a cabinet official who had ownership interest in a business which turned out to have very strong ties to people very close to the highest levels of the Russian government. And he and those who worked with him didn't seem to think that that was a problem.
NAYLOR: In a statement, the Commerce Department said Ross has never met the Sibur shareholders, supports the Trump administration sanctions against Russia and works closely to, quote, "ensure the highest ethical standards." Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.
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