While the spotlight is on Michael Flynn’s discussions with Russia about sanctions, little attention is being paid to the Russian connections of Trump’s Commerce Secretary nominee Wilbur Ross, who if confirmed would oversee an agency involved with enforcing those sanctions.
The 79-year-old Ross, who was an advisor to Trump’s presidential campaign, is best known as a vulture capitalist who made a fortune restructuring troubled steel, coal and textile companies and then selling them off. Yet he continues to have associations with a wide range of companies. Among those is the Bank of Cyprus, where Ross has served as vice chairman of the board of directors since leading a financial rescue of the institution in 2014.
According to reporting in late 2016 by McClatchy and Mother Jones, the Cypriot bank has close ties to wealthy Russian businessmen linked to Vladimir Putin. One of those is Viktor Vekselberg, whose Renova Group became the second largest shareholder in the bank. One of Renova’s executives, Maksim Goldman, was named to the bank’s board of directors and is now a vice chairman alongside Ross.
McClatchy also pointed out that the Bank of Cyprus was mentioned thousands of times in the Panama Papers in connection with the offshore activities of Putin’s cronies. And then there’s the fact that the chair of the bank Ross helped to install is Josef Ackermann, the retired chief executive of Deutsche Bank, which last month agreed to pay $425 million to resolve allegations by the New York State Department of Financial Services that it helped Russian clients engage in what amounted to money laundering through an international mirror-trading scheme.
What makes all of this more significant is that among the agencies Ross would oversee as Commerce Secretary is the Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS), which along with the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, administers the sanctions against Russia imposed by the Obama Administration and which, for the moment, are still in effect.
The BIS portion of those sanctions includes restrictions on the ability of U.S. companies to export certain military and energy products to Russian parties whose names are on what is known as the Entity List. The latest Russian additions to the list were made in the final weeks of the Obama Administration in the wake of new sanctions imposed in response to Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election.
In his confirmation hearing last month, Ross was not interrogated about his views on Russian sanctions or how he might adjust the role of BIS. And Ross has defused much of the opposition to his nomination by vowing to divest from most (though not all) of his holdings.
Yet in light of the ongoing controversy over the Russian links of other figures in Trump’s campaign and his administration, Ross’s ties to the Putin network deserve a lot more scrutiny (as do his China connections).
Note: The Bureau of Industry and Security and the Office of Foreign Assets Control, along with the State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls, are among the agencies whose cases will be included in an update of Violation Tracker that will be posted next week.