Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross stashed roughly $2 billion of assets in trust funds for his family members before he was confirmed — which allowed him to keep the cash off of his financial disclosure reports, according to a report Monday
The hidden assets raise questions about whether the 79-year-old billionaire violated federal rules and whether his family owns billions in holdings that could create the appearance of conflicts of interest, Forbes magazine reported.
Ross only disclosed the trusts and the timing of the transfer after Forbes questioned why his financial disclosure form listed fewer assets than he had previously told the magazine he owned.
Three months before the 2016 election, Ross’ assistant said his portfolio included $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 in real estate.
That adds up to $3.7 billion. Last year, Forbes asked for proof of the existence of those assets but got no reply.
The magazine ultimately estimated Ross’ fortune at $2.9 billion for its annual Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans, published in October.
Federal law requires incoming Cabinet members to disclose assets they own, as well as any that produced income during the current and previous calendar years, even if they no longer own the assets.
Ross was cagey in response to questions about the trusts.
“I’m not the beneficiary of them,” he told Forbes. “That’s the point. This is set up for children and things like that.”
Asked if his children were the only beneficiaries, he replied, “Yes, well, and some 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. We’ve both had a couple of marriages, as you probably know.”
Two trust attorneys told the magazine they doubted 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.
Ethics experts also raised concerns.
“That’s an enormous amount,” said Richard Painter, 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?”