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'Forbes': Wilbur Ross Confirms He Made False Stock Statement


The central figure in the escalating U.S. trade dispute with China has done business in China, and Forbes magazine reports that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has been slow to sell off his investments, as he promised to do when confirmed. Ross had plenty to divest. He is an extremely wealthy investor known for buying and turning around old-line businesses like railroads, and steel mills and more. Dan Alexander wrote about him for Forbes, and he's on the line.

Good morning.

DAN ALEXANDER: Morning. How are you?

INSKEEP: So what did Wilbur Ross say he would do with his investments, especially his overseas investments, when he was confirmed for this job?

ALEXANDER: So Wilbur Ross said that he was going to divest from almost everything. And when he was questioned about how he was going to get rid of conflicts of interest in his confirmation hearing, he was very clear that if there was any, as he put it, scintilla of doubt, that he was going to make sure that it was all taken care of.

INSKEEP: And as you note in your story, Democrats, as well as Republicans, praised him for that stance. So did he do that?

ALEXANDER: Well, he did technically divest. Now, here's the catch. He sold part of his stakes to Goldman Sachs, and the other part he divested by putting it in a trust, it appears, for his family members, which technically does count as a divestment under the federal rules, but it really doesn't do all that much to separate you from the conflicts that people were worried about in the first place.

INSKEEP: OK. So what kinds of businesses has he been involved in specifically with China?

ALEXANDER: Well, so he's actually a business partner with China. The Chinese government runs a sovereign wealth fund that has invested alongside his funds over the years. And so that means that, for example, on a company named Diamond S Shipping, they are co-owners - Wilbur Ross, the guy negotiating on behalf the U.S. government, and the China Investment Corp, which is a sovereign wealth fund for the state of China.

INSKEEP: Now, I want to make sure I'm clear on this because you do note that there was a progression here. Ross took a number of months. Then he did sell some stocks. Then he sold some other things. Then he set up this trust. Are you saying he currently, presently has a financial interest in a venture with a Chinese-owned firm?

ALEXANDER: His family currently and presently appears to have financial interests alongside Chinese firms. He personally has complied with the law, which means that he has divested of the things that he promised that he would divest.

INSKEEP: Now, we did reach out to Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, and asked about this, and his aides say the Office of Government Ethics cleared his various transactions. Why is that not the last word on this?

ALEXANDER: Well, that's true. But, you know, the Office of Government Ethics' standards are probably more lax than most people would expect. So you can just dump everything into a trust for your adult children if you're 80 years old, and they say that you have no conflicts of interest. We'll see if people agree with that conclusion.

INSKEEP: So I'm curious, Dan Alexander. We're on a morning where it seems like a trade war is heating up. The Trump administration is threatening far more tariffs on China. Is there any evidence or any risk that Wilbur Ross would be in some way conflicted? The administration doesn't seem to have any trouble being tough on China.

ALEXANDER: Well, there's certainly risk. You know, the whole idea of conflicts-of-interest laws is to make sure that people don't have to wonder whether somebody is conflicted and that they have fully separated themselves from their holdings. Wilbur Ross has opened up that question in China and a lot of other places, as well.

INSKEEP: Dan Alexander of Forbes, thanks very much.

ALEXANDER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.