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Wilbur Ross Responds To Accusations He Hid Ties To Putin-Linked Firm

After the latest offshore tax investigative bombshell called the "Paradise Papers" - a sequel to last year's Panama Papers - revealed yesterday that Trump's Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had indirect business ties with two Russian oligarchs, as well as Vladimir Putin's son-in-law, the secretary who has found himself in hot water over more alleged backroom deals with Russia, rebutted those claims and told CNBC that he was totally transparent about his holdings, and all pertinent disclosures were made on his version of Form 278, the main financial disclosure form for the executive branch.

"That's totally wrong. It was disclosed on the form 278 which is the financial disclosure form, in my case, three times," Ross said. He also told a reporter that “the fact that (Sibur) happens to be called a Russian company does not mean there’s any evil in it,” Reuters reported. The millions of documents mostly originate from a Bermuda-based legal services provider that works on offshore investments.

"A company not under sanction is just like any other company, period. It was a normal commercial relationship and one that I had nothing to do with the creation of, and do not know the shareholders who were apparently sanctioned at some later point in time," Ross told CNBC.

One of SIBUR's owners is Gennady Timchenko, a Russian billionaire who is considered part of Putin's inner circle, according to NBC. Since 2014, Timchenko has been barred by the Treasury Department from entering the United States, according to the news agency. A second SIBUR owner is another Putin associate, Leonid Mikhelson, whose other company, Novatek, was placed on Treasury sanctions list in 2014, NBC noted. A third shareholder in SIBUR, and its deputy chairman, is Kirill Shamalov, husband of Vladimir Putin's daughter, Katerina Tikhonova, the BBC reported.

Separately, Sibur said on Monday that it had no direct dealings with Wilbur Ross and that its ties to its partners were not in breach of sanctions imposed on Russia over the Ukraine crisis as they've made all necessary checks for any possible sanctions violations and none were found. In a statement, the Russian company  said that in the first half of this year, Sibur spent $15.9 million on services provided by Navigator, or 2.8% of Sibur’s overall expenditure on logistics. It said Navigator was never a sole contractor for shipping Sibur’s petrochemical products.

More from the statement:

All negotiations and meetings were held solely by Sibur management and solely with management of those companies (which were shipping Sibur’s liquefied petroleum gas) and without shareholders’ involvement. In connection with the introduction in 2014 of sanctions with regard to one of the company’s shareholders, our counter-parties conducted all necessary checks into whether there were any restrictions on working with Sibur. No such restrictions were found. Sibur expresses its surprise at the politically-charged interpretation in certain media publications of regular commercial activities, over many years, which from the outset were reflected in the company’s published accounts.

The Paradise Paper leaks revealed Ross has investments in Navigator Holdings, which earns millions a year transporting oil and gas for Sibur. Two major Sibur shareholders have been sanctioned by the US: Russian billionaire Gennady Timchenko, who has at least 12 companies connected to him. The Russian natural gas company, Novatek, belonging to Leonid Mikhelson. Another key Sibur shareholder is President Vladimir Putin's son-in-law, Kirill Shamalov, who holds a 3.9% stake in the firm. And while Kirill isn't subject to sanctions, his father, Nikolai, is. The US imposed sanctions on Russia after pro-Russian forces helpd annex Crimea in 2014. Others were imposed in the waning days of the Obama presidency amid mass hysteria surrounding Russia's attempts to allegedly hack the US election - a narrative that is still unfolding.

Initial reports about the Paradise Papers claimed that Ross didn't disclose to Congress the full details of his holdings before he was confirmed in late February. According to the leaks, he retains a financial interest in Navigator Holdings via a number of companies in the Cayman Islands, some of which he did disclose at the time of his confirmation.

For his part, Ross has denied reports that he failed to make the necessary disclosures before Congress.

The ties were disclosed in the so-called "Paradise Papers," a mass of documents leaked to German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung and reported Sunday. Zeitung, along with the ICIJ and a handful of other newspapers around the globe, helped disseminate reports about the Panama Papers in early 2016 after a reporter at Zeitung was leaked a massive trove of documents from an unnamed source.

Ross dismissed any suggestion that he considered resigning from his position as commerce secretary when the news broke Sunday night. "No, that is a silly question. There is nothing wrong with anything that was done," Ross said.

* * *

Responding to the documents, the U.S. Department of Commerce said in an initial statement Sunday that Ross "was not involved with Navigator's decision to engage in business with SIBUR, a publicly-traded company, which was not under sanction at the time and is not currently."

"Moreover, Secretary Ross has never met the Sibur shareholders referenced in this story and, until now, did not know of their relationship," the statement said, adding: "The Secretary recuses himself from matters focused on transoceanic shipping vessels, but has been supportive of the Administration's sanctions against Russian and other entities."

Read Ross's Form 278 below: