Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross benefits from business ties to Putin’s inner circle

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur L. Ross Jr. has a stake in a shipping firm that receives millions of dollars a year in revenue from a company whose key owners include Russian President Vladimir Putin’s son-in-law and a Russian tycoon sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department as a member of Putin’s inner circle.

Ross, a billionaire private equity investor, divested most of his business assets before joining President Donald Trump’s Cabinet in February, but he kept a stake in the shipping firm, Navigator Holdings Ltd., which is incorporated in the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific. Offshore entities in which Ross and other investors hold a financial stake controlled 31.5 percent of the company in 2016, according to Navigator’s latest annual report.

Among Navigator’s largest customers, contributing more than $68 million in revenue since 2014, is the Moscow-based gas and petrochemicals company Sibur. Two of its key owners are Kirill Shamalov, who is married to Putin’s youngest daughter, and Gennady Timchenko, the sanctioned oligarch whose activities in the energy sector, the Treasury Department said, were “directly linked to Putin.”

Another powerful owner is Sibur’s largest shareholder, Leonid Mikhelson, who controls an energy company that was also sanctioned by the Treasury Department for propping up Putin’s rule.

In the aftermath of the election, investigations by Congress and the U.S. Justice Department have explored potential business ties between Russia and members of the Trump administration. While several of Trump’s campaign and business associates have come under scrutiny, until now no business connections have been reported between senior Trump administration officials and members of Putin’s family or inner circle.

During his confirmation process, Ross was asked repeatedly about his business ties to Russia, mostly related to his former role as vice chairman of the Bank of Cyprus, which has a long history of financing Russian oligarchs. “The United States Senate and the American public deserve to know the full extent of your connections with Russia and your knowledge of any ties between the Trump Administration, Trump Campaign, or Trump Organization and the Bank of Cyprus,” a group of five Democratic senators wrote Ross after the hearing but prior to his confirmation. Ross responded briefly to a question submitted for the hearing, saying the Russians who invested in the bank “were not my partners,” but he didn’t respond to the senators’ letter.

Commerce and conflict

The commerce secretary’s indirect business connection with Putin’s son-in-law and oligarch allies emerges from an examination of public records and a leak of millions of offshore financial documents from the Bermuda law firm Appleby obtained by German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and its global network of media partners. They represent the inner workings of Appleby from the 1950s until 2016. The files include documents from Appleby’s corporate services division, which became independent in 2016 under the name Estera.

The leaked files showed a chain of companies and partnerships in the Cayman Islands through which Ross has retained his financial stake in Navigator.

The fact that Ross’ Cayman Islands companies benefit from a firm controlled by Putin proxies raises serious potential conflicts of interest, experts say. As commerce secretary, Ross has the power to influence U.S. trade, sanctions and other matters that could affect Sibur’s owners. Likewise, Sibur’s owners, and through them, Putin himself, could have the ability to increase or decrease Sibur’s business with Navigator even as Ross helps steer U.S. policy.

Richard Painter, who served as chief ethics lawyer during the George W. Bush administration, said Ross might have to recuse himself from a range of sanctions decisions. He added that while there was no inherent violation in Ross’ holdings, the Navigator arrangement warrants closer scrutiny.

Read the complete article on the Internation Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

Image source: International Consortium of Investigative Journalists

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Trump’s commerce secretary oversaw Russia deal while at Bank of Cyprus


Wilbur Ross was previously vice-chairman of the Bank Of Cyprus. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Wilbur Ross, the Trump administration’s new commerce secretary, presided over a deal with a Russian businessman with ties to Vladimir Putin while serving in his previous role as vice-chairman of the Bank of Cyprus.

The transaction raises questions about Ross’s tenure at the Cypriot bank and his ties to politically connected Russian oligarchs. It comes amid confirmation by the FBI that it is investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow to influence the outcome of the presidential election.

In 2015, while he served as vice-chairman of the Bank of Cyprus, the bank’s Russia-based businesses were sold to a Russian banker and consultant, Artem Avetisyan, who had ties to both the Russian president and Russia’s largest bank, Sberbank. At the time, Sberbank was under US and EU sanctions following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Avetisyan had earlier been selected by Putin to head a new business branch of the Russian president’s strategic initiative agency, which was tasked with improving business and government ties.

Avetisyan’s business partner, Oleg Gref, is the son of Herman Gref, Sberbank’s chief executive officer, and their consultancy has served as a “partner” to Sberbank, according to their website. Ross had described the Russian businesses – including 120 bank branches in Russia – as being worth “hundreds of millions of euros” in 2014 but they were sold with other assets to Avetisyan for €7m (£6m).

Ross has not been accused of wrongdoing and there is no indication the Russian deal violated US or EU sanctions. Ross resigned from the Bank of Cyprus board after he was confirmed as commerce secretary last month.

Ross, who had made billions of dollars years earlier by betting on bankrupt steel mills, was known for taking risky bets. But his decision to inject €400m into the bank with other investors encompassed a different kind of risk. It put him at the centre of the biggest financial institution in a country that was widely considered to be a tax haven for Russian oligarchs, even as the US and EU were imposing sanctions on Russia. In 2014, the year he made his investment, the US State Department considered Cyprus an area of “primary concern” for money laundering (pdf), according to its official assessment.

Ross was appointed vice-chairman at the bank after his investment in 2014, a post he shared with a deposit holder-turned-shareholder, Vladimir Strzhalkovsky, referred to in Russian media as a former KGB official and Putin ally. According to the bank’s annual reports, the two attended two board meetings together in 2014 and as many as five together in 2015 before Strzhalkovsky’s May 2015 resignation from the board. One of the questions that has been posed to Ross by Democratic senators is whether he ever had contact with Strzhalkovsky.

One of Ross’s first big decisions at the bank was the appointment of former Deutsche Bank chief executive Josef Ackermann as chairman, whom he chose in part because of Ackermann’s “huge Rolodex”, according to a 2014 Bloomberg interview.

Ackermann’s ties to Russia were especially strong, including a warm relationship with Putin and Herman Gref of Sberbank.

In a separate management decision under Ross’s watch, Bank of Cyprus gave Alfa Bank, Russia’s largest private bank, until 2019 – four more years than originally planned – to pay back a €100m debt it owed in connection to Alfa’s purchase of the bank’s Ukrainian assets. Alfa Bank still owed Bank of Cyprus €57m as of the end of September. Bank of Cyprus said the extension was provided because of the “worsening geopolitical situation in Ukraine”.

John Koenig, former US ambassador to Cyprus, told the Guardian he did not believe Ross had ever gone out of his way to favour Russian investors or the Kremlin. At the time, he recalled, officials were actively seeking investments from big US and European banks but nobody was interested until Ross came along.

Read the complete article on The Guardian web site.

Trump’s Foxes Guarding Hen House

 Donald Trump: pointing the way toward ... more of the same, actually. Photograph: Timothy A Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Donald Trump: pointing the way toward … more of the same, actually. Photograph: Timothy A Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Trump promised to “drain the swamp” and has instead chosen to place foxes in the hen house.

From the nomination of the Wall Street insiders Steven Mnuchin and Wilbur Ross to key posts atop the treasury and commerce departments, respectively, to the selection of individuals whose qualifications seem questionable at best, Trump’s choices to fill key business positions in his administration appear likely to favor the elite more than the man on the street.

Trump himself is on record as opposing the Dodd-Frank rules that have made Wall Street a (slightly) safer place in the wake of the financial crisis. Mnuchin, like all good Wall Streeters, clearly would love to see those rules vanish, although he has been discreet about what he says publicly.

Mnuchin himself profited when the distressed mortgage lender he bought at a firesale price, IndyMac, foreclosed on properties owned by tens of thousands of homeowners who had taken out mortgages with his firm prior to the financial crisis. In one case, the firm foreclosed on a 90-year-old woman following a 27-cent error in her payment. Is this someone who will fight for real Americans against insider interests? Or one who is more likely to fight against them on behalf of those insider interests?

Ross is a more complex character. He has made his money as a turnaround investor, taking near-bankrupt companies and salvaging them when possible. Some of those skills might translate to the commerce secretary role, where he would be responsible for promoting economic growth and developing business, as well as trade negotiations with countries such as China. But bankruptcy turnaround also involves cutting jobs, not creating them; it’s about keeping costs low and acting in the interests of a company’s debt holders, and possibly its shareholders. Its workers? Well, their labor contracts, with guaranteed living wages, often serve as a barrier to the kind of restructuring deals that people like Ross want to negotiate.

But then we move on to look at Trump’s pick for labor secretary, and the mind is truly boggled.

After several years in which fast-food workers have taken the lead in the battle for higher minimum earnings – even going on strike in hundreds of cities to demand a wage of $15 an hour – it seemed as if their efforts were finally gaining momentum. In New York City, for example, pay for fast-food workers will hit $15 an hour by 2018.

Trump, however, has just tapped a fast-food executive and outspoken opponent of the push for higher minimum wages, Andrew Puzder, to serve as his labor secretary. Good luck to any Americans looking for support from the government for any living-wage proposals. Puzder’s response to those who have advocated for the $15-an-hour wage? “They should really think about what they’re doing,” he has said. We need to keep entry-level salaries low in order to be able to accommodate entry-level workers, he added. No word about what happens when workers are no longer entry level but still earning those meager wages, or when those ultra-low earnings simply leave families eking out an existence just above the poverty line.

Let’s get this straight: the individual who will be responsible for overseeing the government’s policies with respect to small business – ensuring that those small businesses treat their employees responsibly and that the government finds ways to help them grow – is a billionaire co-owner of a (large, not small) company that may have achieved its wealth in part by exploiting loopholes in labor rules? That’s a great model for those ambitious entrepreneurs to emulate, isn’t it?

But as Trump himself may not yet have fully grasped, running the United States of America is not akin to running USA Inc. His picks to run business-related portfolios need to include in their calculus more than just conventional business metrics such as return on equity or profit.

That’s particularly true if Trump wants to keep his core constituents happy. He’s in a honeymoon period right now, but if this new cabinet and its denizens of the billionaire swamp conduct business as usual, ignoring the needs of the ordinary workers who aren’t investors and who aren’t large-scale consumers or campaign donors, then that honeymoon won’t last long.

Read the complete article on The Guardian here.