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Commerce Secretary Cites 'Inadvertent Errors' for Not Divesting His Holdings

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross takes a question during the daily press briefing at the White House on April 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON — Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said he made “inadvertent errors” by failing to divest of all his holdings as required by ethics agreements.

The multi-millionaire investment banker, who began leading the Commerce Department in February 2017, was notified by the government’s ethics chief that “failure to divest created the potential for a serious criminal violation on your part and undermined public confidence.”

David J. Apol, acting director and general counsel of the Office of Government Ethics, told Ross he was concerned about “how recent actions on your part may have negatively affected the public trust.”

“Various financial disclosure forms and compliance documents that you have submitted to OGE in the past year have contained various omissions and inaccurate statements. For example, you represented in your Certification of Ethics Agreement Compliance, signed November 1, 201 7, that you had completed divestitures indicated in your Ethics Agreement, dated January 15, 2017. However, you later submitted a transaction report on December 21, 2017 that included two sales of Invesco Ltd stock which took place on December 19 and 20, 2017, well after the date of your compliance document and the date by which you agreed to divest this asset,” Apol wrote to Ross on Thursday. “You also opened new short positions on various holdings that you committed to divesting in your Ethics Agreement, in contravention of that agreement.”

He added that Ross failed to consult with ethics staff beforehand, and “a variety of sources have raised concerns about your actions.”

Ross said in a statement, “I have made inadvertent errors in completing the divestitures required by my ethics agreement. My investments were complex and included hundreds of items. I self-reported each error, and worked diligently with my department’s ethics officials to make sure I avoided any conflicts of interest.”

“My ethics agreement allowed me to retain some private equity holdings,” he added. “To maintain the public trust, I have directed that all of my equity holdings be sold and the proceeds placed in U.S. Treasury securities.”

In Apol’s letter to Ross, the ethics chief said his office has “no information to contradict that assertion” that the omissions were inadvertent.

“As a high level public official, you have an affirmative duty to protect the public trust and serve as a model of ethical behavior. This duty includes exercising the care necessary to fully and timely comply with your ethics commitments, and be accurate in statements to OGE regarding the same,” he added, urging the Commerce secretary to be “complete and accurate” in his upcoming annual report.