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.
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.”
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 ,