MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
A member of President Trump's administration is under scrutiny this morning for business links to Russian President Vladimir Putin's family. We are talking here about Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who reportedly retained investments in a shipping firm with ties to Putin's son-in-law. That's according to a trove of leaked documents known intriguingly as the Paradise Papers. The papers were obtained by a German newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, and shared by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, shared with three newspapers including Britain's The Guardian.
One of The Guardian reporters digging through the Paradise Papers is Jon Swaine, and he joins me now via Skype. Hi there, Jon.
JON SWAINE: Hi.
KELLY: Walk us briefly, if that is possible - walk us briefly through the connection being alleged here between Wilbur Ross, this shipping company and Vladimir Putin's son-in-law.
SWAINE: So Wilbur Ross owns, through a series of offshore investment vehicles, a stake in a shipping company named Navigator. Navigator is paid about $20 million a year to ship gas out of Russia for a Russian company named Sibur. And Sibur is co-owned by Putin's son-in-law, Kirill Shamalov.
KELLY: And how lucrative a deal has this been for the parties involved?
SWAINE: Well, Navigator's brought in about $68 million in revenue since 2014 from the deal. But the contract is worth at least $200 million a year, and it's scheduled to continue for about a decade.
KELLY: Now, Wilbur Ross has given an interview to the BBC. The BBC's economics editor is tweeting about it this morning, and he's quoting Ross as saying, there's nothing whatsoever improper about this relationship. Also, and this is a direct quote attributed to Wilbur Ross, "where there is evil is the misstatement that I did not disclose these holdings in my original form," close quote, meaning when Ross was being vetted for the position. So Jon Swaine, I mean, the optics maybe aren't great here, the U.S. commerce secretary in some kind of business entanglement with Putin's family.
But did you find anything actually illegal here?
SWAINE: Nothing illegal. But people we speak to, analysts who have been involved in sanctions on Russia and former State Department officials, they present us with two problems, really. The commerce secretary is obviously involved in trade and industry. And this commerce secretary turns out to have a stake in a pretty major shipping company, which does that kind of business. And Wilbur Ross says he's recused himself from all of that type of industry. But, you know, it's pretty difficult for the commerce secretary to be completely removed from a huge area of U.S. commerce.
Secondly, one of the other co-owners of this Russian company Sibur is under U.S. sanctions. And a third co-owner, his other company is under U.S. sanctions. Trump's administration is obviously responsible for imposing these sanctions on these Russians. Wilbur Ross is part of that administration. And if he has these business ties, some of these analysts say that that presents him with a conflict.
KELLY: Is it clear that this company, Sibur, is actually under the sanctions? I ask because again, according to this interview that Ross gave to the BBC, he is quoted as saying, "our government, the U.S. government, has not made the determination to sanction Sibur, so there's nothing wrong with this."
SWAINE: Well, that's right that Sibur is not under sanctions, as you say. But Gennady Timchenko, who is another co-owner of the company, is under U.S. sanctions. He's a close ally of President Putin. And then Leonid Mikhelson, a third co-owner, he owns a second company - that company is under U.S. sanctions. So, you know, people at the heart of this company are under U.S. sanctions, sanctions imposed in 2014 and then again in 2016 for the aggression that President Putin has shown in Eastern Europe. And so these people are under a U.S. Treasury sanction and they're also involved in Sibur.
KELLY: And just to be clear on the timing, Wilbur Ross' involvement with the shipping venture goes back to years ago, way before he took on this role in the administration, is that right?
SWAINE: That's correct. Wilbur Ross was a private equity tycoon before he entered government. And his company, W.L. Ross & Company, bought into Navigator. They sort of took control of it in 2011 to 2012 by buying large chunks of the shares. And so Wilbur Ross joined the board of directors of Navigator in 2012. And from then, Navigator began to have this relationship with the Russian company Sibur. But as you said, Wilbur Ross has retained the interest after entering government.
KELLY: And we just have a few seconds left. But before I let you go, I have to ask, the Paradise Papers contain 13 million documents. Are there likely to be other interesting nuggets in there?
SWAINE: There's certainly a lot more stories to come. So, yeah, people should stay tuned.
KELLY: All right, that is Jon Swaine of The Guardian reporting this morning on this member of President Trump's administration, Wilbur Ross, under scrutiny for business links to a member of Vladimir Putin's family. Jon Swaine, thanks very much.
SWAINE: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.