Trump Put a Grifter in Charge of the Commerce Department

When Donald Trump nominated Wilbur Ross to be his Commerce Secretary, we were reminded of the fact that 13 coal miners died as a result of an explosion at Sago Mine Number One, which was owned by Ross at the time. His business practices were seen by many to be at fault.

The Wilbur Ross business model was to buy failing steel mills, textile mills and coal mines, then jettison the unions with their niggling work rules, reduce wages, drop health care, renege on pension obligations and cut operating costs down to the proverbial bone.

But there is a lot more to Wilbur Ross than all of that. Given that we’re in the midst of the first trial of Paul Manafort, it might be a good time to shine a spotlight on one of the members of Trump’s cabinet who has managed to fly under the radar. If you don’t know how Manafort’s money laundering is connected to Ross, you might want to take a look at what I wrote about that back in March of 2017.

Back in 2014 when the Russians invaded Ukraine, the U.S. Treasury Department began keeping an eye on Cyprian banks in order to recover stolen Ukrainian assets after the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. The AP reports that this investigation by the Treasury Department now includes former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort.

It just so happens that Wilbur Ross served as vice-chair of the Bank of Cyprus.

In 2014, the Bank of Cyprus was still considered to be in a precarious state following a dramatic €10bn rescue of Cyprus’s banking sector by the ECB and the IMF. Under the terms of the deal, many of the bank’s wealthy Russian deposit holders lost their cash and became shareholders in the bank.

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.

Dan Alexander now adds another piece of the pie to the story of Wilbur Ross. Here’s the gist of what he learned about the current Secretary of Commerce:

Over several months, in speaking with 21 people who know Ross, Forbes uncovered a pattern: Many of those who worked directly with him claim that Ross wrongly siphoned or outright stole a few million here and a few million there, huge amounts for most but not necessarily for the commerce secretary. At least if you consider them individually. But all told, these allegations—which sparked lawsuits, reimbursements and an SEC fine—come to more than $120 million. If even half of the accusations are legitimate, the current United States secretary of commerce could rank among the biggest grifters in American history…

Those who’ve done business with Ross generally tell a consistent story, of a man obsessed with money and untethered to facts. “He’ll push the edge of truthfulness and use whatever power he has to grab assets,” says New York financier Asher Edelman. One of Ross’ former colleagues is more direct: “He’s a pathological liar.”

You might wonder why a man like that would take a job in a president’s cabinet. Alexander provides the answer to that question.

From Ross’ vantage point, Trump offered the perfect exit. The future cabinet secretary’s private equity funds were underperforming—one on track to lose 26% of its initial value and another two dribbling out mediocre returns—and the accusations were starting to pile up. Roughly two months before the 2016 presidential election, the SEC announced WL Ross was paying a fine and refunding $11.9 million it allegedly skimmed from its investors, including interest.

The picture that emerges about Wilbur Ross is of a man who ripped off workers (as well as put them in danger), invested in a failing bank in order to hobnob with Russian oligarchs, and is a pathological liar with a money obsession. Remind you of anyone else? I guess grifters are drawn to other grifters.

I don’t have a lot else to say about Wilbur Ross, except that he is the man Donald Trump chose to put in charge of an agency with this mission:

The Department of Commerce promotes job creation and economic growth by ensuring fair and reciprocal trade, providing the data necessary to support commerce and constitutional democracy, and fostering innovation by setting standards and conducting foundational research and development…Among many other functions, the Department oversees ocean and coastal navigation, helps negotiate bilateral trade agreements, and enforces laws that ensure a level playing field for American businesses and workers.

That last part about enforcing “laws that ensure a level playing field for American businesses and workers” is not likely to be much of a priority for this guy.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .