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Thursday December 12th, 2019 6:42PM

Report: Commerce head has stake in firm tied to Putin orbit

By The Associated Press
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NEW YORK (AP) — Newly leaked documents show that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, the Trump administration's point man on trade and manufacturing policy, has a stake in a company that does business with a gas producer partly owned by the son-in-law of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

According to records obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Ross is an investor in Navigator Holdings, a shipping giant that counts Russian gas and petrochemical producer Sibur among its major customers. Putin's son-in-law Kirill Shamalov once owned more than 20 percent of the company, but now holds a much smaller stake.

Commerce Department spokesman James Rockas said Ross "never met" Shamalov and has generally supported the Trump administration's sanctions against Russia, according to the ICIJ report. Rockas added that Ross has withdrawn from matters related to transoceanic shipping vessels and has met the "highest ethical standards."

Ross told Britain's Sky network that U.S. ethics officials who had reviewed his finances earlier this year did not ask him to sell his Navigator stock, and that he had listed the holding in his government financial disclosure forms and wasn't hiding anything.

"This would have been something not good had it not been disclosed, but it has been quite fulsomely disclosed," Ross said.

The details are likely to add to the questions about ties between Russia and the Trump administration, connections that for months have shadowed the White House and are a focus of an investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller. Yet it wasn't immediately clear how many partners Ross might have or what the profit-sharing agreement might be.

ICIJ disclosed the Ross holding as part of reporting on 13.4 million records of offshore entities in tax havens leaked to German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. The newspaper then shared the records with ICIJ and a network of more than 380 journalists in 67 countries. The New York Times is its U.S. partner in this inquiry.

The Times reported on the Ross holding on Sunday.

It wasn't immediately clear exactly how much of Navigator, which is publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange, Ross personally owns. ICIJ reported that Ross and other investors own four Cayman Island entities that in turn own 31.5 percent of Navigator, a stake worth $176 million at Friday's closing stock price.

Ross' stake in Navigator is likely a small fraction of that. In financial disclosure forms he filed with the government this year, Ross valued his holdings in the Cayman Island entities, which include other companies besides Navigator, at no more than $10.1 million.

Sibur contributed 8 percent to Navigator's revenue last year, according to reports filed with securities regulators. Russia's energy sector is largely controlled by individuals with ties to state actors, including Putin.

In a statement issued to Russian news agency Tass, Sibur said the deal with Navigator was "a typical commercial action" and that it has worked with shipping companies other than Navigator.

Much of the new trove of files includes bank statements, emails and loan agreements from Appleby, a law firm that helps set up offshore dummy companies and trusts. Appleby told the ICIJ that there is "no evidence" that it has done anything wrong.

Other records came from Asiaciti Trust, a family-run offshore specialist based In Singapore, and from 19 corporate registries maintained by governments in jurisdictions that draw the wealthy seeking privacy.

Big investments in two U.S. tech companies from a Russian government bank and Russian energy giant have also come to light.

The ICIJ reported that Silicon Valley investor and Russian citizen Yuri Milner got $191 million from VTB Bank, and invested that money in Twitter. The leaked records also show that a financial subsidiary of Russian energy company Gazprom funded a shell company that invested in a Milner-affiliated company that held roughly $1 billion in Facebook shares shortly before its 2012 initial public offering.

Milner told the ICIJ that he was unaware of any involvement by the Gazprom subsidiary in any of his deals and that none of his investments has been related to politics.

Milner has also invested in a tech-savvy real estate fund that was co-founded by Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner called Cadre. Milner told the ICIJ that he used his own money for the investment.

Sunday's revelations follow last year's release of records from a Panama-based firm involved in setting up offshore accounts. That disclosure triggered investigations in several countries, the resignation of the prime minister of Iceland and ouster of the leader of Pakistan. The Panama Papers also revealed that close associates of Russia's leader Putin had been using the dummy accounts abroad to store their wealth, including a close Putin friend who had $2 billion of offshore assets.

There are legitimate reasons for setting up offshore accounts, but lax regulation and anonymity in some jurisdictions make it easy to launder money, evade taxes and avoid regulatory scrutiny. Critics of the widening gap between the super-wealthy and the rest have seized upon the use of tax havens as revealed in the Panama Papers as evidence of a crisis, and governments have promised to crack down.

In the case of Ross, the ICIJ reported Navigator's Russian customer, Sibur, has ties to Putin in addition to his son-in-law.

A big shareholder is Gennady Timchenko, who was targeted by the U.S. and other Western nations for sanctions after Russia's invasion of the Ukrainian region of Crimea in 2014. A few months later, the U.S. barred banks from providing long-term financing to a gas company belonging to another large Sibur shareholder, Leonid Mikhelson. Mikhelson has also been sanctioned by the Treasury Department for propping up Putin's rule.

Sibur itself was not targeted by the U.S. sanctions, but the Bank of America and the Royal Bank of Scotland reportedly backed away from doing business with the company.

The Russian gas producer last year contributed $23 million to Navigator's revenue, an increase of more than 40 percent in two years

___

Associated Press writers Jake Pearson in New York and Eric Tucker contributed to this report.

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