Who Is Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and What’s His History with President Donald Trump?

President Donald Trump‘s Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross may have stolen $120 million from business associates and investors over the years, according to a new report from Forbes. If the accusations prove true, the thefts could place him “among the biggest grifters in American history,” reporter Dan Alexander wrote.

Wilbur Ross

Wilbur Ross, picked by President-elect Donald Trump to serve as his commerce secretary, testifies at his confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Commerce Committee on Capitol Hill on January 18, 2017 in Washington, DC. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Forbes spoke to 21 of Ross’s colleagues over several months, many of whom claimed that Ross had a habit of siphoning off millions of dollars for his own use, often by charging improper fees on investments.

One lawsuit filed in November 2017 by three former executives at Ross’s investment firm, WL Ross, alleges that the firm and Ross charged more than $48 million in improper fees. Ross previously reached confidential settlements with several former employees regarding money they say vanished. In 2016, he paid had to pay a $2.3 million fine to the SEC to clear up allegations that he defrauded investors. One anonymous former colleague called Ross “a pathological liar.”

Meet Wilbur Ross  

The 80-year-old Ross joined Donald Trump’s cabinet as Commerce Secretary in February 2017. Before heading to Washington, he ran WL Ross & Co, a private equity firm. From the mid-1970s through 2000, he was an investment banker at Rothschild Inc.

Ross earned the nickname the “King of Bankruptcy” for his skill at buying up the assets of distressed or failed companies, especially in the banking and steel and coal industries. As Commerce Secretary, he oversees a department that “promotes job creation and economic growth by ensuring fair and reciprocal trade.”

Why he’s a controversial figure

While the claims that he’s swindled people out of $120 million are new, questions about Wilbur Ross’s business dealings and his wealth have swirled for years.

Ross previously had a spot on the Forbes 400 list. In 2016, the magazine estimated his fortune at $2.9 billion. Ross claimed that the figure was too low. But when the reporters did a little digging, they found that he only had about $700 million in assets. Ross still claimed he was a billionaire (sound familiar?), saying the rest of his money was in private trusts. But when pressed for proof, he refused to provide any.

Forbes, for its part, is convinced the $2 billion in trust money “never existed.” It also revealed that earlier estimates of his wealth incorrectly included not just Ross’s personal assets but also the money invested in his funds.

Ross was also caught up in the Paradise Papers leak in 2017. Those leaked documents revealed the Commerce Secretary had financial links with a company that makes millions by transporting gas for Sibur, a Russian energy firm. Two of Sibur’s owners are subject to U.S. sanctions, while another shareholder is Vladimir Putin’s son-in-law, the BBC reported.

Ross’s history with Donald Trump

Taj Mahal Trump Hotel And Casino

The Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. | Craig Allen/Getty Images

Ross and Trump have a relationship going back more than a quarter-century. When Trump was struggling to make payments on the $675 million in junk bonds he’d used to finance his failing Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City, it was Ross who stepped in to save the day, as explained in a report in Forbes.

Ross, then the head of Rothschild’s bankruptcy advising team, devised a plan that would save Trump from bankruptcy and let him keep control of the casino. While Trump gave up half his stake in the business, he got better debt terms in exchange and remained at the helm. 

Some even credit Ross with putting Trump on the path to the presidency. Not only did he help bail Trump out from a potentially catastrophic bankruptcy, but he was the one who recognized the value of the Trump name and brand, according to Trump biographer David Cay Johnston.

“Wilbur Ross was a key negotiator in Donald Trump not having to go through bankruptcy and not being swept into the dustbin of history because he saw the value in the Trump name,” Johnston told the BBC.

“If it hadn’t been for Wilbur Ross, Donald Trump would not be in the White House.”

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