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Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross faces accusations that he lied about his wealth

Just a day after defending himself against reports that he failed to disclose his business links to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s family, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross came under wider scrutiny Tuesday over his financial holdings and whether he had been forthcoming about his wealth.

Ross’ success in building companies and his personal fortune were held out by President Trump and Ross’ supporters as among the factors that made him well suited for the job of Commerce secretary, and the soft-spoken 79-year-old, often referred to as the billionaire investor, was easily confirmed to the Cabinet post in February.

But an article in Forbes, which is known for producing a list of billionaires, reported that Ross had grossly inflated his net worth while it raised troubling questions about Ross’ financial dealings and overall business acumen. The magazine removed Ross from its coveted ranking.

Forbes said its examination of Ross’ financial disclosure forms filed after his nomination for Commerce secretary revealed his assets at less than $700 million. A year earlier the magazine had put Ross’ net worth — based on its own analysis and Ross’ confirmation — at $2.9 billion.

Ross was traveling in Asia with Trump, and the secretary’s press representative in Washington was said to be unavailable Tuesday. But a brief statement released later in the day and attributed to a Commerce spokesman said: “The Forbes article cites former employees, without full knowledge, and all but one anonymously – we will not respond further.”

The statement made no mention of the more than $2 billion in family trusts that Forbes said Ross claimed he had set up after the election to hold much of his wealth. The magazine, which acknowledged that its own past miscalculations led to the inflated estimates of Ross’ wealth, said it was now confident that that money never existed.

"It seems clear that Ross lied to us, the latest in an apparent sequence of fibs, exaggerations, omissions, fabrications and whoppers that have been going on with Forbes since 2004," the Forbes report said.

The Forbes article was magnified in that it came on the heels of reports Monday about the so-called Paradise Papers, which among other revelations about companies and individuals using schemes to avoid taxes, showed that Ross used offshore investments to own a stake in a shipping firm, Navigator Holdings, that does millions of dollars worth of business with a gas company called Sibur. Sibur’s investors include Putin’s son-in-law as well as a friend of Putin’s who is subject to U.S. economic sanctions for his role in the Russian annexation of Crimea.

Revelations of that connection prompted government watchdog groups and Democratic lawmakers to call for an investigation into possible conflicts of interest, given that the Trump administration has imposed sanctions on Russian companies and individuals.

Ross contended Monday that he had done nothing wrong, saying he had disclosed his holdings in the Cayman Islands companies, through which he had investments in Navigator, after Trump nominated him for the Commerce post.

On Tuesday, the Commerce statement said: “Secretary Ross’s disclosure documents were compiled by legal counsel and accountants. The relevant rules were followed, and the documents were closely reviewed and approved by ethics officials at the Department of Commerce and the Office of Government Ethics.”

Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said that his group was still looking into whether Ross had violated any government disclosure rules in not reporting that his investment in Navigator was benefiting from business dealings with an enterprise partly owned by Putin’s inner circle.

“Whether or not there are laws broken here, it should have been clear to him that where there were significant financial ties with people closely associated with the Russian government. He ought to have come clean about that,” said Bookbinder. “Given all of the very real interest and concern about ties between this administration and Russia, it kind of seems obvious that that’s something that people would have wanted to know and deserved to know.”

The Forbes report only added to the questions about the nature of Ross’ personal finances — just as many have long wondered about Trump’s wealth — and whether the Commerce secretary had provided an accurate and full account that led to his confirmation.

“Time now for Sec. Ross to be honest and straightforward about what his assets are, where they are held, and who is benefiting from them,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said Tuesday on Twitter.

During Ross’ confirmation hearing in January, Blumenthal and other senators asked Ross about his extensive financial holdings and past involvement turning around distressed companies in the textile and auto industries. There were also questions about Ross’ investments and involvement in a Cyprus bank with reported financial ties to wealthy Russians.

But Ross said he had no knowledge of any interaction between the bank and people associated with the Trump administration. And Ross reassured lawmakers by promising to divest most of his assets — he said he would retain interests in a dozen entities engaged in real estate and shipping businesses — and to step down from positions on multiple companies and foundations. He was confirmed by the full Senate, 72 to 27.

“The Senate should look at this because they confirmed him based on the evidence he provided and the commitments he made,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a watchdog group, adding that the Commerce inspector general should also investigate. “The bottom line is, I think Secretary Ross has a lot of explaining to do.… There certainly seems to have been information that has come out in the last few days that we had no idea about.”

don.lee@latimes.com

Follow me at @dleelatimes

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