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What we learned about Wilbur Ross’ financial ties from the Paradise Papers

Some of the world’s wealthiest corporations and individuals had offshore tax and financial dealings revealed in a leak of more than 13 million documents, known as the Paradise Papers. That includes Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose investments indirectly trace to a Kremlin-linked energy firm. Lisa Desjardins talks to Sasha Chavkin of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

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  • John Yang:

    Now, a new series of investigations reveals the offshore financial dealings of some of the world’s wealthiest people and biggest corporations.

    The stories are tied to what’s being called the Paradise Papers, a leak of more than 13 million documents from a Bermuda law firm, offshore havens and other corporate registries. They show how trillions of dollars are moved around, often illegally, and how taxes and regulations can be ducked.

    Lisa Desjardins has the story.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The papers were leaked to a German newspaper and then shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, in all, more than 380 journalists in 67 countries.

    One of many investigations getting a lot of attention, the investments of commerce secretary Wilbur Ross. Ross kept a stake in a shipping company called Navigator Holdings after he became secretary. One of Navigator’s top clients is the Russian energy company Sibur, whose owners include Vladimir Putin’s son-in-law and Kremlin-linked oligarchs on the U.S. sanctions list.

    Critics are calling for an investigation, but the commerce secretary said he’s done nothing wrong.

    Sasha Chavkin is a reporter with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists who broke this story and has been working on this for nearly a year.

    Thank you so much for joining us.

  • Sasha Chavkin:

    Thanks for having me.

  • Lisa Desjardins: 

    This is just a vast amount of data on what is one of the murkiest sources of wealth and power in the world. Let’s take the big picture first.

    Can you explain what these tax havens are and why there’s concern?

  • Sasha Chavkin:

    Yes.

    So, we were leaked 13.4 million documents from an elite offshore law firm called Appleby. And what it did was, it used those tax havens to help its clients, who are rich individuals, multinational corporations, powerful politicians, conduct their business, often in ways where they reduce taxes or face less disclosure than ordinary people are subject to.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Is it legal or is it illegal?

  • Sasha Chavkin:

    Most of this is legal, and that’s a lot of the concern that our investigation has raised.

    In some cases, people also crossed the line into illegal activity.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    All right, this brings us to one of the names. There are many names in the file, including the queen of England and Madonna, who had offshore investments.

    But let’s talk about Wilbur Ross. What exactly is his connection here?

  • Sasha Chavkin:

    Well, Wilbur Ross and his private equity firm, W.L. Ross & Co, was one of the biggest clients of this offshore firms, Appleby, with more than Cayman Islands companies.

    We were able to trace a personal stake that Ross held through Cayman Islands companies in Navigator Holdings, the shipping company that has ties to this Kremlin-linked energy firm.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Now, Secretary Ross did speak about this today on CNBC. Let’s listen.

  • Wilbur Ross:

    My obligation is to disclose companies in which I’m an officer, a director, or an investor. I am neither an officer nor a director nor an investor in Sibur. In fact, I have never met them, don’t know the people, had nothing to do with the negotiation of the charter arrangement.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Now, critics say he wasn’t fully disclosing that he has an indirect relationship with this Russian company Sibur.

    But he is saying, no, I was on the up and up. I said everywhere that I have invested in. The fact that I’m invested in a company that has a relationship with Sibur, that wasn’t asked.

    Is that right? Did he disclose things properly?

  • Sasha Chavkin:

    There’s no indication that he broke the letter of the disclosure rules.

    But what he did do was came to an ethics agreement where he mentioned nine companies that he was holding a stake in. In that ethics agreement, he mentioned the Cayman Islands companies that held Navigator, but not Navigator itself.

    And that’s why some critics, such as Richard Blumenthal, the senator from Connecticut, essentially said that he was using offshore shell companies to obfuscate. He faced a lot of questions about his connections to Russia during his confirmation process, mostly because of the business he did with the Bank of Cyprus, which is another favorite destination for Russian oligarchs.

    And yet Navigator and Sibur never came up. The senators tell us they never figured it out, based on his disclosures.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    They wouldn’t have been able to connect the dots without these leaked documents that you have today, in other words?

  • Sasha Chavkin:

    The leaks were crucial to us in piecing together that connection.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    We expect more to come. We will be following the story with you.

    Thank you so much, Sasha Chavkin, with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

  • Sasha Chavkin:

    Thank you, Lisa.

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