Wilbur Ross, the octogenarian Commerce Secretary who months ago was found to have grossly inflated his wealth in order to gain entry to the exclusive Forbes billionaire club, stands accused of a much graver infraction.
In an article published Tuesday morning, Forbes’s Dan Alexander — who has become Ross’s central tormentor in the last few months — reported that, based on conversations he had with 21 people, Ross may have stolen more than $120 million from associates over the years, taking vast amounts of money from business partners and consistently scamming investors. “If even half of the accusations are legitimate,” the magazine writes, “the current United States secretary of commerce could rank among the biggest grifters in American history.” If possible, the story paints an even more unflattering portrait of the man than that description lets on:
It is difficult to imagine the possibility that a man like Ross, who Forbes estimates is worth some $700 million, might steal a few million from one of his business partners. Unless you have heard enough stories about Ross. Two former WL Ross colleagues remember the commerce secretary taking handfuls of Sweet’N Low packets from a nearby restaurant, so he didn’t have to go out and buy some for himself. One says workers at his house in the Hamptons used to call the office, claiming Ross had not paid them for their work. Another two people said Ross once pledged $1 million to a charity, then never paid. A commerce official called the tales “petty nonsense,” and added that Ross does not put sweetener in his coffee.
One of Ross’s former colleagues calls him a “pathological liar.”
In a statement, the Department of Commerce said: “The anonymously sourced Forbes story is based on false rumors, innuendo, and unverifiable claims. The fact remains that no regulator has made any of these accusations against the Secretary. This rehash of old stories is clearly the result of a personal vendetta. The baseless claims made in this story were well publicized long ago and are not news.”
Forbes reports that Ross’s private equity funds were struggling in the run-up to President Trump’s victory, and that his complex methods of allegedly skimming money from investors, which involved, in part, charging inappropriately large management fees, were drawing increasing scrutiny from federal authorities. The Commerce Secretary position provided a soft landing.
But Ross isn’t out of the legal woods. He has also had to contend with accusations leveled by several former colleagues, who say that he stole millions from them. Several have filed suit against Ross over the years — one lawsuit was settled for about $10 million in 2007 — and another case, filed by equity manager David Storper, is making its way through the New York court system.
Unsurprisingly, Ross’s questionable ethical practices have continued during his White House tenure. As Dan Alexander (yes, him again) reported last June, Ross maintained holdings in foreign companies even while serving in government, exposing him to obvious conflicts of interest. One of these firms had major ties to a Russian oligarch who had been hit with American sanctions. Last November, Ross signed a form asserting that he had divested all the assets he had previously promised to, which turned out not to be true.
These transgressions, for which Ross has mostly offered difficult-to-believe explanations of ignorance on his part, have drawn some attention from Democratic lawmakers and the Office of Government Ethics.
But is any of this enough to possibly cost Ross his job? Given that it took roughly 475 scandals for Scott Pruitt to finally get the heave-ho, it seems unlikely, at least for now. But if Democrats take control of Congress in the fall, with all the oversight powers that entails, Ross may find himself in a considerably worse position.