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Ethics questions swirl around Wilbur Ross’ calendar and financial interests

The U.S. Office of Government Ethics sent a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross last week criticizing his failure to fully divest stocks by Jan. 15, 2017 -- 18 months after Ross agreed to do so. Amna Nawaz talks with Dan Alexander of Forbes about questions surrounding Ross’ actions as secretary in relation to his personal wealth.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Trump promised to drain the swamp, as he put it, when he was running for office and since he was inaugurated.

    But a number of top officials in his Cabinet and administration have come under sharp scrutiny. One Cabinet head that's getting more attention of late is the secretary of commerce, Wilbur Ross.

    Amna Nawaz has a look at the ethics concern about Mr. Ross' own finances and meetings while in office.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, last week, the acting director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics sent a letter to Secretary Ross criticizing the commerce secretary for failing to fully divest stocks by January 15, 2017, 18 months after Ross agreed to do so.

    The letter stated, "Your failure to divest created the potential for a serious criminal violation on your part and undermined public confidence."

    Ross has since admitted to inadvertent errors and announced he has finally sold all equity holdings. But questions about the timing of Ross' actions as secretary related to his personal wealth remain.

    Dan Alexander of "Forbes" has been covering the story. And his reporting was cited by the Office of Government Ethics in that letter last week. He joins me now.

    Dan Alexander, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    I want to ask you about some of your latest reporting. You looked specifically at Secretary Ross' calendar, specifically the time between February and November of 2017. Those were his first few months in office. What about that time raised red flags for you?

  • Dan Alexander:

    Well, we started looking through it.

    And, immediately, you can see that there are dozens of meetings with companies in which Secretary Ross had financial interests or ties to the company. There are also meetings with foreign leaders that have oversight over businesses that he owned at the time. And there are also meetings with sovereign wealth funds that had previously pumped millions of dollars into Secretary Ross' private equity funds.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, let's look specifically at one day, for example.

    May 18, 2017, you detail in your reporting. It's a busy day for the secretary. He has meetings with foreign officials, a trade hearing, some calls. There's one lunch that you hone in on, one that lasts longer than any other meeting. And it's a lunch with the CEO of a railcar manufacturer called Greenbrier ®MDNM¯Companies.

    Why is that significant?

  • Dan Alexander:

    So shocking when we saw it on the calendar. You can see it's listed as lunch with Wendy and Bill Furman.

    And if you look at see who Bill Furman is, you can see that he is, as you said, the CEO of Greenbrier Companies. And Wendy appears to be Wilbur Ross' secretary of staff.

    So, it looks like there are three people in this meeting. One's the CEO of Greenbrier, one is Wilbur Ross, and the third is — appears to be Wendy Teramoto.

    Now, at the time, Wilbur Ross had a secret interest in Greenbrier, which he had never disclosed to ethics officials. And he had that interest while he was having this meeting.

    In addition, Wendy Teramoto also had a financial interest in Greenbrier. So, you have got three people at the meeting. Two of them have undisclosed to the public interests in the company that the third person is running.

    What they discussed about is going to be a question that a lot of people are wondering. The Commerce Department says it was all friendly. But it's hard to imagine that they didn't get into any business topics at all.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And also, as part of your reporting, you mentioned in there you found out Greenbrier had been lobbying for renegotiations of NAFTA, and then we saw action from Secretary Ross' office that same day.

    Is that right?

  • Dan Alexander:

    Yes.

    The meeting starts at 12:00 noon. And, at 11:59 a.m., Secretary Ross puts out a statement that he's going to be renegotiating NAFTA on behalf of Donald Trump. And, as you said, Greenbrier had been actively lobbying other parts of the federal government to make changes to NAFTA at that point for months.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, he didn't disclose the interest in that one company.

    He did disclose, however, interest he held in a private equity fund, one whose single biggest investment is actually a company that builds ship in China. What's the ethical conflict there?

  • Dan Alexander:

    So this is a company you're referring which is called Nautical Bulk Holding. This is another one actually that he didn't divest originally. He just — excuse me — didn't disclose originally.

    He just disclosed he had the fund, but you have to disclose all of the underlying holdings of the fund. And that biggest interest, as you said, was to make ships in China. And, at the time, Wilbur Ross is one of Donald Trump's lead lieutenants in what is now the ongoing trade war between the United States and China.

    So, you have got a guy whose financial interests are positioned to benefit from trade in China at the same time that he's negotiating over trade in China.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dan, let me ask you this, because we asked Secretary Ross' office for comment. They pointed us back to that July 12 letter we cited in the introduction here.

    And they basically cited a part that said, look, although — this is the Office of Government Ethics to his office — that his actions could have run him afoul of criminal conflict of interest law, but that they found a review of the calenders, his briefing books and correspondence, that he wasn't in any such violation of that law.

    They also pointed us to a part of their department statement, the Commerce Department statement, in which they said, "The vast majority of the holdings described in the story have been told by Secretary Ross, and he has committed to sell the remainder."

    So does that solve the problem?

  • Dan Alexander:

    No, it doesn't solve the problem.

    There are a couple of things there. First of all, the letter was looking at the interests that he held after he had said that he was going to divest them. So, that means companies like Greenbrier, which we mentioned earlier.

    It doesn't say that they looked at all of his meetings overall. And there are other meetings with companies in which Ross and his wife had interests at the time of those meetings. So those sorts of meetings are the thing that federal investigators would want to look at as well.

    And the fact that he's now saying that he's in the process of divesting some of them or that he's divested some of them already, that doesn't absolve him of the fact of what he did at the time that he owned those companies.

    So this is not a — you know, a source-based story. You can just look at the calendar and look at his disclosures. You see what he owns. You see what his meetings were. And you can see that there's clear overlap.

    And people will be looking at that, whether or not he's out of those companies at this point or not.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Dan, very quickly, there's a line here obviously between something that looks bad and something that is bad, right, between unethical and illegal.

    Where does Secretary Ross seem to be on the line? And if there is some larger concern, who holds him accountable?

  • Dan Alexander:

    So, there are several different legal issues here.

    But with many of the legal issues, the line is whether he was sloppy and made mistakes in not divesting of these things, or whether he intentionally lied to federal officials, saying that he had divested them.

    It's very difficult to believe that a guy who's known as one of the smartest investors in the United States could have simply forgotten about, for example, a $10 million-plus stake that he still held in his former employer. But that's what Ross says. And he says that with several other interests as well.

    It's hard to get inside people's heads, but that's what people will be trying to do, to figure out whether those were lies or whether those were a series of mistakes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dan Alexander of "Forbes," thanks for your time.

  • Dan Alexander:

    Thank you.

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