The U.S. government’s top ethics watchdog has ruled that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross violated his ethics agreement by inaccurately reporting stock holdings in his 2018 financial disclosure form.
“Therefore, OGE is declining to certify Secretary Ross’s 2018 financial disclosure report,” Rounds wrote in a letter dated Feb. 15, “because that report was not accurate and he was not in compliance with his ethics agreement at the time of the report.”
Observers called the move highly unusual, and one told CNN that the office’s decision amounted to “a pretty giant red flag.” Richard Painter, an ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, told the outlet that he has never seen a Cabinet member’s disclosure form rejected in this way.
In a statement Tuesday, Ross said he mistakenly believed he had sold the assets in question — 100 shares of BankUnited stock — in May 2017. When he realized his error, he said, he sold the stock and disclosed the sale in October 2018.
The shares, Ross said, were worth $3,700, an amount that federal regulations deem “below the threshold of a possible conflict of interest.” (According to a Bloomberg News report, that threshold is $15,000 for publicly traded securities.)
“Therefore, even if a BankUnited matter had come before the Department while I owned the shares — and I have not been made aware of any such matter — I would not have been disqualified from working on it,” Ross said. He called the inaccuracy “the only known error in my annual report.”
In his letter, Rounds said his office had warned Ross before over his “failure to comply with his ethics compliance agreements” and cautioned that “even inadvertent errors could undermine the public’s trust in the Secretary and his Department’s overall ethics program.”
Ross has repeatedly faced scrutiny over his investments, as lawmakers and outside groups have called for investigations into his finances. In 2018, Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, asked then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to review Ross’s disclosures for “potential criminal violations.”
Ethics experts have said that, wrongdoing or not, government officials must avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.
“The American people have entrusted @SecretaryRoss with power and authority so he can ensure the welfare of the American economy,” tweeted Delaney Marsco, a lawyer with Campaign Legal Center, a public interest group. “I don’t think we should have to wonder if he’s making decisions for the benefit of the public or for his own pocketbook.”