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Nov 06 2017

The Russian Connection: Living In Paradise

Over the weekend, a trough of 13.4 million files from two offshore service providers and 19 tax havens’ company registries were released to the press. The files revealed the secrets of the world elite’s hidden wealth.

Files from offshore law firm show financial dealings of the Queen, big multinationals and members of Donald Trump’s cabinet

The material, which has come from two offshore service providers and the company registries of 19 tax havens, was obtained by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists with partners including the Guardian, the BBC and the New York Times.

The project has been called the Paradise Papers. It reveals:

At the centre of the leak is Appleby, a law firm with outposts in Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands, the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey. In contrast to Mossack Fonseca, the discredited firm at the centre of last year’s Panama Papers investigation, Appleby prides itself on being a leading member of the “magic circle” of top-ranking offshore service providers.

It acted for the establishment offshore, providing the structures that helped to legally reduce their tax bills.

One of the bigger revelations from these files concerned Commerce Secretary and billionaire Wilbur Ross. The leaks showed Ross did not disclose his close ties to cronies of Russian President Vladimir Putin either during his confirmation hearing or in his financial disclosure statement.

In Ross’s case, the documents give a far fuller picture of his finances than the filings he submitted to the government on Jan. 15 as part of his confirmation process. On that date, Ross, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for commerce secretary, submitted a letter to the designated ethics official at the department, explaining steps he was taking to avoid all conflicts of interest.

That explanation was vital to his confirmation, because Ross held financial interests in hundreds of companies across dozens of sectors, many of which could be affected by his decisions as commerce secretary. Any one of them could represent a potential conflict of interest, which is why the disclosures, by law, are supposed to be thorough. [..]

In his submission letter to the government, Ross pledged to cut ties with more than 80 financial entities in which he has interests.

Ross’s apparent ethical probity won praise, even before he signed the divestment agreement, from both sides of the political aisle.

Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary in the Trump administration, shares business interests with Vladimir Putin’s immediate family, and he failed to clearly disclose those interests when he was being confirmed for his cabinet position.

Ross — a billionaire industrialist — retains an interest in a shipping company, Navigator Holdings, that was partially owned by his former investment company. One of Navigator’s most important business relationships is with a Russian energy firm controlled, in turn, by Putin’s son-in-law and other members of the Russian president’s inner circle.
[Wilbur Ross Latest Trump Official to Fall Under Scrutiny for Russia-Relations]
Wilbur Ross Latest Trump Official to Fall Under Scrutiny for Russia-Relations 1:59

Some of the details of Ross’s continuing financial holdings — much of which were not disclosed during his confirmation process — are revealed in a trove of more than 7 million internal documents of Appleby, a Bermuda-based law firm, that was leaked to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. The documents consist of emails, presentations and other electronic data. These were then shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists — a global network that won the Pulitzer Prize this year for its work on the Panama Papers — and its international media partners. NBC News was given access to some of the leaked documents, which the ICIJ calls the “Paradise Papers.”
Image: Wilbur Ross
Wilbur Ross, picked by President-elect Donald Trump to serve as his commerce secretary, arrives to testify at his confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Commerce Committee on Capitol Hill on January 18, 2017 in Washington. Joe Raedle / Getty Images file

Overall, the document leak provides a rare insight into the workings of the global offshore financial world, which is used by many of the world’s most powerful companies and government officials to legally avoid paying taxes and to conduct business away from public scrutiny. More than 120 politicians and royal rulers around the world are identified in the leak as having ties to offshore finance.

The New York Times reported Sunday that the documents also contain references to offshore interests held by Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. There is no evidence of illegality in their dealings.
Ross’ widespread financial interests

In Ross’s case, the documents give a far fuller picture of his finances than the filings he submitted to the government on Jan. 15 as part of his confirmation process. On that date, Ross, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for commerce secretary, submitted a letter to the designated ethics official at the department, explaining steps he was taking to avoid all conflicts of interest.

That explanation was vital to his confirmation, because Ross held financial interests in hundreds of companies across dozens of sectors, many of which could be affected by his decisions as commerce secretary. Any one of them could represent a potential conflict of interest, which is why the disclosures, by law, are supposed to be thorough.

“The information that he provided on that form is just a start. It is incomplete,” said Kathleen Clark, an expert on government ethics at Washington University in St. Louis. “I have no reason to believe that he violated the law of disclosure, but in order … for the Commerce Department to understand, you’d have to have more information than what is listed on that form.”

Ross, through a Commerce Department spokesperson, issued a statement saying that he recuses himself as secretary from any matters regarding transoceanic shipping, and said he works closely with ethics officials in the department “to ensure the highest ethical standards.”

The statement said Ross “has been generally supportive of the Administration’s sanctions of Russian” business entities. But the statement did not address the question of whether he informed Congress or the Commerce Department that he was retaining an interest in companies that have close Russian ties.

In his submission letter to the government, Ross pledged to cut ties with more than 80 financial entities in which he has interests.
Image: Wilbur Ross
Wilbur Ross testifies before a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee confirmation hearing on his nomination to be commerce secretary at Capitol Hill on January 18, 2017 in Washington. Carlos Barria / Reuters file

Ross’s apparent ethical probity won praise, even before he signed the divestment agreement, from both sides of the political aisle.

The documents seen by NBC News, however, along with a careful examination of filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, tell a different story than the one Ross told at his confirmation. Ross divested most of his holdings, but did not reveal to the government the full details of the holdings he kept.

In his letter to the ethics official of the Commerce Department, Ross created two lists: those entities and interests he planned to get rid of and those he intended to keep. The second list consisted of nine entities, four of which were Cayman Islands companies represented and managed by the Appleby law firm, which specializes in creating complex offshore holdings for wealthy clients and businesses. The Wilbur Ross Group is one of the firm’s biggest clients, according to the leaked documents, connected to more than 60 offshore holdings.

The four holdings on the list of assets that Ross held onto were valued by him on the form as between $2.05 million and $10.1 million. These four, in turn, are linked through ownership chains to two other entities, WLR Recovery Fund IV DSS AIV L.P. and WLR Recovery Fund V DSS AIV L.P., which were listed in Ross’ financial disclosure prior to confirmation, but were not among the assets he declared he would retain. According to an SEC filing, those entities hold 17.5 million shares in Navigator, which constitutes control of nearly one-third of the shipping firm.

The biggest questions circle around the shipping firm, Navigator, and its close ties to Russia

The shipper, Navigator Holdings, earns millions of dollars a year transporting gas for one of its top clients, a giant Russian energy company called Sibur, whose owners include the oligarch and Mr. Putin’s family member. Despite selling off numerous other holdings to join the Trump administration and spearhead its “America first” trade policy, Mr. Ross kept an investment in Navigator, which increased its business dealings with Sibur even as the West sought to punish Russia’s energy sector over Mr. Putin’s incursions into Ukraine.

Partnerships used by Mr. Ross, whose private equity firm has long been the biggest shareholder in Navigator, have a 31 percent stake in the company. Though his personal share of that stake was reduced as he took office in February, he retained an investment in the partnerships valued between $2 million and $10 million, and stood to earn a higher share of profits as a general partner, according to his government ethics disclosure and securities filings. [..]

Mr. Ross emerges as a particularly valued client for the offshore law firm, whose records provide more insight into his financial holdings beyond the public ethics disclosures he made upon joining the Trump administration. His ethics agreement filed in January listed the partnerships he intended to keep, but not the investments they held. Previously, Navigator had been mentioned in a separate, 57-page description of his holdings for the year that ended in December 2016, but with no hint of its ties to Sibur.

Sibur’s top ownership — including Gennady Timchenko, who is Mr. Putin’s friend and judo partner and is subject to American sanctions, and Kirill Shamalov, who is married to the Russian president’s youngest daughter — makes it “a company with crony connections” in Moscow, said Daniel Fried, a Russia expert who served in senior State Department posts in Republican and Democratic administrations.

Another of Navigator’s major customers is PDVSA, the Venezuelan state oil company, controlled by the authoritarian regime of Nicolás Maduro. The Trump administration imposed sanctions on PDVSA this summer. [..]

It is perhaps unsurprising that Navigator would have a relationship with a major Russian company during Mr. Ross’s tenure. Much like President Trump, whose company sought approval for a hotel project in Moscow as recently as last year, Mr. Ross has long shown an appreciation for the untapped potential of Russian markets when seeking investment opportunities. His involvement there dates at least to the 1990s, when he was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the board of the U.S. Russia Investment Fund, established to promote American business interests in Russia. [..]

In the wake of reports of Russian interference in the United States presidential election, multiple investigations have explored potential business ties between Russia and members of the Trump administration. While several Trump campaign and business associates have come under scrutiny, until now no business connections have been reported between senior administration officials and members of Mr. Putin’s family or inner circle.

During Mr. Ross’s confirmation process, he was asked repeatedly about his business ties to Russia, mostly related to his former role as vice chairman of the Bank of Cyprus, where he dealt with Russian investors but also forced some of them out of the bank. He was also asked about his investment in another shipping company, Diamond S, and whether its dealings with China could pose a conflict with his government duties. But he faced no questions about Navigator and its significant financial relationship with Sibur.

 

MSNBC’s intrepid investigative reporter Richard Engel unravels the story.

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