US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has defended personal business links to Russia revealed by the Paradise Papers on Monday.
‘I think the media has made a lot more out of it than it deserves,’ Ross told the BBC on the sidelines of a business conference in London.
Ross insisted that ‘there is no impropriety’.
In a separate interview with Bloomberg, Ross indicated he could end the links but not because of any wrongdoing.
A vast leak of documents dubbed the Paradise Papers released by the US-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) show that Ross has business ties to a shipping firm linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.
A massive data leak has revealed that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross (pictured above speaking in London on Monday) has significant business ties to a Russian oligarch and President Vladimir Putin’s son-in-law
Ross has defended personal business links to Russia revealed by the Paradise Papers and indicated he could end the links but not because of any wrongdoing
The papers show that Ross has business ties to a shipping firm linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. Pictured above, Putin on Saturday
The newly disclosed 13.4 million documents, called the Paradise Papers, have revealed secrets of more than 120 politicians worldwide including the secretive dealings of the Queen and the world’s biggest businesses after being published by news organizations around the world on Sunday.
The files expose the ways that the rich and powerful are protecting their wealth using a web of offshore accounts.
The documents were leaked to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which is the same publication that obtained last year’s Panama Papers.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists led a worldwide effort with 96 media organizations who went through the documents to report on their contents.
Among those implicated, the documents show that Ross failed to clearly disclose his interests with Putin’s immediate family while he was being confirmed for his cabinet position with Trump’s administration.
Ross’s ties raise questions over potential conflicts of interest, and whether they undermine Washington’s sanctions on Moscow.
Ross, a billionaire investor, holds a 31-percent stake in Navigator Holdings through a complex web of offshore investments detailed in the documents examined by nearly 100 news organisations as part of an international collaboration.
The documents show that Ross failed to clearly disclose his interests with Putin’s immediate family while he was being confirmed for his cabinet position with Trump’s administration
His personal share of the firm’s stake was reduced when he took office in February, but the commerce chief’s investment is still valued at between $2 million and $10 million (1.7 million euros and 8.6 million euros), according to his security filings and government ethics disclosure.
Asked by Bloomberg if he was keeping the remaining stake, Ross replied: ‘Probably not’, adding, ‘I have been actually selling it anyway, but that isn’t because of this’.
Navigator Holdings runs a lucrative partnership with Russian energy giant Sibur, which is partially owned by Putin’s son-in-law Kirill Shamalov and Gennady Timchenko, the Russian president’s friend and business partner who is subject to US sanctions.
Ross’s spokesman told the Times that he never met any of Sibur’s oligarch bosses. The spokesman also said that Navigator’s contract with the company was signed before the billionaire industrialist joined its board in 2012.
The files include allegations that the Queen’s private estate secretly invested huge sums of cash in tax havens
However, records show in November 2011 Ross’ company bought into Navigator, which was several months ahead of it chartering its first ships for Sibur.
‘Sibur was not under sanctions at the time the contract was signed and is still not subject to sanctions,’ spokesman James Rockas told the Times.
Responding to the BBC on Monday, Ross added: ‘First of all the company in question, Sibur, is a very major hydrocarbon company.
‘Its commercial relationship with Navigator Holdings is simply that Navigator charters some vessels to them.
‘There’s no interlocking of board, there’s no interlocking of shareholders, I had nothing to do with the negotiation of the deal.
‘And in fact it was negotiated before I went on the board of Navigator.’
Ross went on: ‘But most importantly the company that is our client itself, Sibur, was not then sanctioned, is not now sanctioned, and never was sanctioned in between.
‘There’s nothing whatsoever improper.’
Meanwhile, the Paradise Papers also show that Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and White House advisor, is implicated.
Two Kremlin-connected interests and state institutions invested in Facebook and Twitter through one of Kushner’s business associates.
Those investments were made through Yuri Milner, a Russian technology magnate who holds a stake in a company that’s co-owned by Kushner. He funneled money to the social media giants.
TWO FIRMS RUN BY THE RUSSIAN STATE INVESTED IN FACEBOOK AND TWITTER
Two firms run by the Russian state made massive investments in Facebook and Twitter – through a business contact of Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, say the papers.
The revelation shows that Russia made millions out of the American internet giants, and will fuel mounting concerns about how Russian president Vladimir Putin has made use of the influential social media firms – including to influence the result of the US election last year.
Paradise Papers documents show that Russia’s state-run VTB Bank and the state-run gas and oil corporation Gazprom ploughed money into the key US social media companies around six years ago
VTB put £120m into Twitter shares, and Gazprom went through a series of investment bodies to help amass Facebook shares worth an astonishing £625m.
Both Russian state companies are subject to US sanctions, so rather than openly buying the shares in their own company names, they were purchased indirectly with the help of investment funds managed by ex-pat Russian technology tycoon Yuri Milner.
Potentially embarrassingly for US president Donald Trump – who continues to deny growing claims of Russian entanglement in his ultimately successful election campaign – Milner holds a share in a firm part-owned by Jared Kushner, who is both Trump’s son-in-law and a senior White House advisor.
Russian computer mogul Milner, born and educated in in Moscow before stints at a US university and the World Bank in Washington DC, worked with the Russian government in 2009 on making public services available online.
He was personally invited to invest in Facebook by the social networking site’s founder Mark Zuckerberg, and soon put some £120m of his own money into the firm. Zuckerberg was even a guest at Milner’s wedding in California in 2011.
Milner has lived permanently in America since 2014 – but the investment fund he operates, DST Global, has used money from investors including the VTB Bank in Moscow.
The leaked documents show VTB put £120m into offshore fund DST Investments 3 – registered in the Isle of Man – which was used to buy 11m Twitter shares in 2011, which amounted to up to 2 per cent of the company. They are understood to have grown by up to £170m in value just two years later.
Meanwhile Gazprom, the Russian gas and oil giant, controlled an investment fund called Kanton Services based in the British Virgin Islands. Kanton owned the majority of a fund called DST USA II – again believed to be directed by Milner.
And DST USA II bought more than 50 million Facebook shares, a holding of more than three per cent. They rose to a value of £625m – a billion dollars – before ultimately being sold at a profit.
According to the Guardian newspaper, Milner said he knew the names of investors but could not reveal all of them under a confidentiality agreement. But he did accept VTB had been among those involved, and that it was Russian government-controlled.
Milner three years ago invested around £500,000 in an online property investment fund for the super-rich set up by Jared Kushner and his brother Joshua in New York. Kushner says his stake is worth around £15m – but initially failed to declare his interest in the company when he joined the White House team after Trump’s victory last year.
Speaking to the Guardian about the tangled investments, Facebook spokeswoman Vanessa Chan said the shares previously ultimately owned by Gazprom had been sold five years ago, and ‘rejected the notion of a lack of due diligence’.
A spokesman for Twitter denied any wrongdoing had occurred.
Back in July, Kushner said during a closed-door Senate Intelligence Committee meeting that he never ‘relied on Russian funds to finance my business activities in the private sector.’
The father-of-three is currently ensnared in the Russia investigations over a meeting he held at Trump Tower in New York City back in June 2016 where he met with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer.
He attended that meeting alongside his brother-in-law Donald Trump Jr. and Paul Manafort, who was just indicted by the special counsel as part of his lobbying work for pro-Russian interests in Ukraine.
The documents also name White House economic czar Gary Cohn, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and includes allegations that Queen Elizabeth’s private estate secretly invested huge sums of cash in tax havens.
The duchy – which was set up in 1399 to generate a financial return from the reigning monarch – holds investments via funds in businesses including off-licence chain Threshers and retailer Brighthouse.
But now the estate stands accused of using offshore private equity funds in the Cayman Islands that shield UK investors from paying US tax on their holdings.
The newly disclosed documents, called the Paradise Papers, also reveal that two Russian state institutions with close ties to Putin funded substantial investments in Facebook and Twitter via a business associate of Jared Kushner (above), President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House advisor
Among the more bizarre revelations is that U2 frontman Bono used a company based in Malta to invest in a Lithuanian shopping centre
Among the more bizarre revelations in the documents is that U2 frontman Bono used a company based in Malta to invest in a Lithuanian shopping center.
The singer bought a share of Nude Estates which went on to purchase the Aušra mall shortly after it opened in 2007.
Five years later the business was transferred to a company in Guernsey called Nude Estates 1.
Bono’s spokeswoman told the Guardian: ‘Bono was a passive, minority investor in Nude Estates Malta Ltd, a company that was legally registered in Malta until it was voluntarily wound up in 2015.
‘Malta is a well-established holding company jurisdiction within the EU.’
Bono – real name Paul Hewson – has been fawned over by world leaders since he began touring the globe calling for more Third World aid and debt relief.
More figures are set to be named during the coming week as more documents are released with the Paradise Papers.
The world’s top financial institutions are still reeling from last year’s enormous Panama Papers data leak revealed how Vladimir Putin’s inner circle and a ‘dirty dozen’ list of world leaders were using offshore tax havens to hide their wealth.
A host of celebrities, sports stars, British politicians and the global rich were implicated in that release.
The 11million files contained more data than the amount stolen by former CIA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013.
Paradise Papers Q&A: Explosive documents reveal how the rich and powerful protect their wealth
What are the Paradise Papers?
More than 13 million leaked secret corporate files, about half of which belong to offshore law and corporate services provider Appleby, which has ten offices around the globe.
There also documents from corporate registries in 19 tax havens. These are mostly Caribbean and Atlantic islands such as Bermuda, Grenada and the Bahamas, but also include Malta, Lebanon, Labuan (an island territory in Malaysia), Samoa, Vanuatu, the Cook Islands and the Marshall Islands. They cover the period between 1950 and 2016.
Is this the same as the Panama Papers?
The Panama Papers involved millions of files leaked from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, showing how some of their clients laundered money, dodged sanctions and avoided tax.
This is a separate leak, although will raise many of the same questions.
Who got the documents, and how?
The German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung obtained the files and shared them with 95 other media organisations around the world.
In all, 381 journalists in 67 countries have been analysing the material for one year. Suddeutsche Zeitung has not revealed its source.
What do the leaks contain?
Documents outlining the tax and financial affairs of hundreds of people and companies connected to Appleby and the 19 tax havens, with many appearing to have invested or sheltered huge amounts of cash in offshore tax havens.
Who do they involve?
Multinational companies, wealthy individuals, heads of state, politicians and sports stars from around the world, including many from the UK.
Some of the biggest names to emerge so far include the Queen, Facebook and Donald Trump’s cabinet members and advisers.
Why is it controversial to put money offshore?
Offshore tax havens typically offer low or zero tax rates to non-residents who keep money there.
Experts estimate that around $10 trillion (£7.6 trillion) is held offshore around the world.
That money would potentially otherwise be taxed in the owner’s home country, meaning governments are potentially missing out on billions in revenue.
Critics also say the secrecy makes it easy for companies to hide wrongdoing.
Will this cause a row about tax avoidance?
Further evidence of the extent of cash being held in tax havens is certain to spur anger and calls for a crackdown on tax avoidance practices.
However, recent leaks including the Panama Papers may have created a certain level of ‘leak fatigue’, denting the documents’ impact.