Politics & Government

Exclusive: Trump commerce pick Wilbur Ross faces new Russia questions

Commerce Secretary-nominee Wilbur Ross, still awaiting confirmation, faces new questions about his banking ties to Russia, the latest member of the Trump team to be embroiled in the controversy over alleged ties to the Kremlin.

Ross was sent a letter late Thursday by six Democratic senators questioning the billionaire financier about his ownership stake in the Bank of Cyprus, on which he still serves as vice chairman of the board of directors. The six senators demanded answers about his relationship with Viktor Vekselberg, the second largest shareholder in the bank.

The letter cited reporting by McClatchy last December about Vekselberg, who sits atop the Renova Corp., a Russian conglomerate. Aside from his friendship with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Vekselberg at one time served on the board of directors of the Russian state-controlled oil giant Rosneft. It is under a partial sanction by the U.S. Treasury Department.

The senators, led by Florida Democrat Bill Nelson, also want to know about Ross’s relationship with Vladimir Strzhalkovsky, a former vice chairman of Bank of Cyprus, a former KGB agent and believed to be a longtime associate of Putin. The letter sent to Ross on Thursday afternoon noted that Russian shareholders had at one point been the largest stakeholders in the bank he rescued in September 2014 amid a financial crisis in Cyprus.

Senators joining Nelson, the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, were Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Tom Udall of New Mexico, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin.

“Are you aware of any loans made by the Bank of Cyprus to the Trump Organization, directly or through another financial institution, its directors or officers, or any affiliated individuals or entities? If so, please detail the amount and terms of any such loans,” the senators asked in one of six detailed questions.

The letter comes as congressional and law enforcement probes widen into possible ties between members of the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, which stands accused by U.S. intelligence agencies of meddling in last year’s U.S. election with email hacking and distributing fake news. At a contentious news conference Thursday, Trump repeated that he knew of no one in his campaign who had ties to Russia and that he did not do business there.

“I own nothing in Russia. I have no loans in Russia. I don’t have any deals in Russia.” Trump said, carefully choosing his words.

Trump’s campaign team members’ ties to Russia made headlines last summer when emails of the Democratic National Committee were hacked and then published by the WikiLeaks website. U.S. intelligence agencies are in agreement that Putin ordered a broad operation to interfere with the election.

Several people who worked in Trump’s campaign and have joined his administration have controversial ties to Russia. His secretary of state, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, did business with Putin. Trump’s national security adviser Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn resigned earlier this week for failing to fully inform Vice President Mike Pence about conversations he had with the Russian ambassador before Inauguration Day about sanctions. The Washington Post reported late Thursday that Flynn also denied to the FBI that he discussed sanctions with Russia, which could put him in legal jeopardy.

Campaign manager Paul Manafort resigned from the campaign last Aug. 19 over his business ties to the former Ukrainian president, who is now living in Russia.

Other questions asked of Ross in the senators’ letter included whether there were any ties between current or former bank officials and the Trump Organization or Trump campaign, and whether anyone with ownership interest in the bank sought to directly or indirectly influence the U.S. election of American policy positions.

Although Ross cleared the Senate Commerce Committee on Jan. 24, a vote on his confirmation is not expected until the final days of the month. The White House had no comment on the senators’ letter.

Cyprus is often used by Russia’s politically connected businessmen. In a March 2013 report, McClatchy detailed how Russians had come to dominate Cyprus as both customers and providers of financial services. Russian depositors and investors took losses that year in Cyprus when the European debt crisis nearly crumbled major banks.

Ross, 79, made his fortunes buying bankrupt companies in the steel, coal and telecommunications sectors and selling them after they’d returned to health. Forbes magazine estimated his net worth was at least $2.5 billion this month.

His investment group took an 18 percent stake in the bank in September 2014, and he was vice chairman of the bank when Trump nominated him late last year. He was expected to resign from that post if confirmed by the Senate, which could happen next week.

Bloomberg reported in late December that Ross wouldn’t completely divest of his holdings in the bank even if he stepped aside.

As the lead investor in Bank of Cyprus, Ross was instrumental in creating its new board of directors. He tapped as its chairman Josef Ackermann, the retired CEO of Germany’s Deutsche Bank.

The Trump Organization has debt with Deutsche Bank, which loaned it more than $364 million in recent years and more than $3 billion since the 1990s. Deutsche Bank, under Ackermann, repeatedly ran afoul of U.S. and European regulators. Most recently, the bank agreed on Jan. 31 to pay $630 million in fines to end investigations in the New York and London into complex trades in Russia that regulators thought might reflect money laundering. The settlement did not end an ongoing Department of Justice probe.

In the senators’ first question in Thursday’s letter, they cited a post-confirmation hearing question from Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., asking about Ross’s relationship with Russian investors in the Bank of Cyprus. His answer in a Jan. 22 letter back to her was that he did not have any relationship prior to his investment in the bank, and had only met with the main Russian investor once, for an hour.

“Please provide details of this meeting, including the person(s) involved, dates, and topics,” the Thursday letter asked.

Kevin G. Hall: 202-383-6038, @KevinGHall

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