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The Mystery Of Wilbur Ross’ Missing Billions

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Wilbur Ross commerce secretary billionaire

Dressed in a blue suit and red tie, Donald Trump’s 79-year-old pick for Secretary of Commerce sat before a panel of senators for nearly four hours in January, deflecting dozens of questions with relative ease. When one legislator at the confirmation hearing asked Wilbur Ross how he would ensure that his official actions did not create conflicts of interest, given his vast personal holdings, Ross left little room for criticism. “I intend to be quite scrupulous about recusal and any topic where there is the slightest scintilla of doubt,” he said.

What he left unsaid, however, was that between the November election and January inauguration, he had quietly moved a chunk of assets into trusts for his family members, leaving more than $2 billion off of his financial disclosure report – and therefore out of the public eye. Ross revealed the existence of those assets, and the timing of the transfer, when Forbes asked why his financial disclosure form listed fewer assets than he had previously told the magazine he owned.

The hidden assets raise questions about whether the Secretary of Commerce violated federal rules and whether his family owns billions in holdings that could create the appearance of conflicts of interest.

Federal law requires incoming cabinet members to disclose assets they currently own, as well as any that produced income during the current and previous calendar years, even if they no longer own the assets. Ross says he followed all rules. But how someone could apparently hold $2 billion in assets, without producing big income that would show up on a financial disclosure report, raises more questions than answers.

Three months before the 2016 election, Ross’ assistant described his portfolio to Forbes as a mix that would theoretically throw off plenty of cash: $1.3 billion of municipal bonds, $1.3 billion worth of interests in general and limited partnerships, $550 million of equities, $225 million of art, $180 million in cash and $120 million worth of real estate.

That adds up to $3.7 billion. Last year, Forbes asked for documentation to prove the existence of those assets, received nothing in return, and ultimately estimated Ross’ fortune at a more conservative $2.9 billion for its annual Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans, published in October. This year, the Secretary of Commerce said he would dig up a breakdown of the assets he transferred into trusts, but he never sent anything. It is unclear whether he cited accurate figures either year.

Ross gave some clues about the structure of the trusts. “I’m not the beneficiary of them,” he said. “That’s the point. This is set up for children and things like that.” Are his children the only beneficiaries? “Yes, well, and some third parties.” What are the third parties? “It’s a complicated story, but there are children from former marriages, things like that, that are not actually my children but who are beneficiaries.” His wife’s two children? “No, others. We’ve both had a couple of marriages, as you probably know.” He said no one outside of his family is a beneficiary of the trusts.

But he did not answer more than a dozen follow-up questions, including how many trusts there are, whether he can reclaim the assets after he leaves government, and whether the trusts could pay him income in the future.

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Walter Shaub, who resigned as the director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics in July 2017, said the rules governing a particular trust are key to understanding whether an official has to disclose the entire trust, or just the assets that produced income shortly before they were transferred out of the filer’s hands. “If someone were to divest an asset by giving it away, it’s important that that asset never wind up back in the donors’ hands again,” Shaub said. “If at some point in the future that person ends up with the asset again, it’s going to look like it was a sham divestiture.”

Two trust attorneys expressed doubt that Ross suddenly made a clean transfer of more than $2 billion to his family, a move that could trigger gift taxes of $800 million or more. Such a move would be especially perplexing, they said, since the Trump administration has proposed easing the tax burden on transfers between generations. “If the estate tax goes away,” said Donald Hamburg, a New York City-based trusts and estates attorney, “then why would you pay a lot of money to get property out of your estate to save estate taxes?”

Ross said he followed all tax rules. It is possible that he transferred some of the assets to his family members years ago. He initially told Forbes that he transferred assets into the trusts shortly after the Nov. 8, 2016 election. But in a later email, he hinted that some of the assets may have belonged to his family members previously. “My personal financial affairs have been complex for a number of years, not just one,” he wrote. “The rough estimates used by Forbes for many years were based on a broad definition of family assets.”

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Ross would not have been required to disclose assets that earned income in 2016 if he had transferred those assets to children in prior years. He did not answer a follow-up question directly asking if he had transferred some of the assets to his family members before the election.

In any case, the fact that the Secretary of Commerce says his family members are beneficiaries to trusts with more than $2 billion worth of undisclosed assets raised concerns among ethics experts. “That’s an enormous amount,” said Richard Painter, who served as the chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush. “It technically avoids the conflict of interest statutes, but don’t you think that the Senate ought to know that he basically avoided it by handing the conflict-producing asset over to your kids?”

Not including the undisclosed assets, Ross retains an estimated $700 million, still enough to make him one of the richest members of Donald Trump’s cabinet but not enough to qualify for The Forbes 400 list of America’s richest people. “I don’t care if I’m on the list or not,” he said. “That frankly doesn’t matter. But what I don’t want is for people to suddenly think that I’ve lost a lot of money when it’s not true.” – Written by 

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South Africa’s land expropriation without compensation intentions have caught the attention of United States President Donald Trump.

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The People’s President

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Liberia president George Weah

It’s been quite an ascent for George Weah – from international football star to president of his country, Liberia. He was sworn in on January 22 to a crowd of adoring supporters who voted for a change, as well as heads of states and football stars, including Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o.

From one of Monrovia’s poorest slums, Weah made a name for himself as a talented footballer at Monaco at the age of 21, and went on to play for some of Europe’s biggest clubs, such as Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan. He won the prestigious Ballon d’Or and FIFA Player of the Year awards in 1995. During his illustrious career that ended in 2003 he also led Liberia’s national team. Musa Shannon, a Liberian businessman and former teammate with Liberia’s national team says Weah’s temperament on and off the field was unparalleled.

“He was inspirational and expected nothing but excellence from all his teammates. He was able to get the best out of everyone. He never took shortcuts.”

Considered the choice of the masses, Weah’s humble beginnings combined with his international celebrity status earned him tremendous support from the mostly youthful Liberian population, especially the poor. In the December run-off elections, Weah easily earned 61.5% of the votes over then Vice-President Joseph Boakai.

“He is the people’s president, he is the one they have chosen,” says Shannon.

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Weah’s win marks the first peaceful transition in decades for the Liberian people. “We have arrived at this transition neither by violence, nor by force of arms. Not a single life was lost in the process… this transition was achieved by the free and democratic will of the Liberian people,” said Weah in his inauguration speech.

Although he moved from sport to politics, the transition hasn’t been sudden, nor without struggle. In 2005, Weah ran unsuccessfully against Noble Laureate President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who made history as the first democratically-elected female African president. Through his party, the Congress for Democratic Change, Weah ran again in 2011 as running-mate to Winston Tubman, losing again to Johnson Sirleaf.

Citing inexperience and a lack of formal education as the main reason for his losses, Weah earned a degree in business and took a seat on the senate in 2014.

“People speak of George Weah as though he doesn’t have a political history, so that if he doesn’t succeed they will say he was new to the game,” says Ezekiel Pajibo, political analyst and human rights activist. “He has been in politics for 12 years and there is no evidence of anything he has done for the Liberian people.”

Expectations are high. Weah promised jobs for the youth and poverty alleviation. Of Liberia’s 4.6 million inhabitants, over 60% are under 25, many of whom voted for him in the hopes of a quick reduction in unemployment.

He inherits a country that has survived two bloody civil wars between 1989 and 2003, a fledgling economy and a young population that is largely unemployed. The Ebola epidemic, which killed over 5,000 people, also showed cracks in the healthcare system. The country still does not have adequate running water or electricity since the civil war, and properly staffed schools remain a problem.

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In his inauguration speech, he made a series of promises.

Firstly, he would stamp out corruption. Secondly, he would assist the private sector. Weah says he wants Liberians to stop being “spectators” in their economy while foreigners control the majority of their resources. Thirdly, he will focus on vocational training for the youth.

Promises must be followed by action. His party has been criticized by the opposition for not clearly outlining how these goals will be achieved.

There are also doubts about Weah garnering the same amount of respect from the international community as his predecessor. “He has to exude leadership capability and have presence in front of the international community. Johnson Sirleaf, as the first female president in Africa, brought international goodwill towards Liberia. She also had a history of working in development structures. President George Weah has none of that,” says Pajibo.

Weah achieved more than was expected of him as a footballer. Liberians will be hoping he can do the same as their country’s president. – Written by Lamelle Shaw

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