WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said on Monday he had done nothing wrong and did properly disclose his investments in a shipping firm that has significant business ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle.
Ross was responding in media interviews to reports on Sunday about his investments stemming from the so-called Paradise Papers, a trove of leaked documents about offshore investment that relate to the affairs of wealthy individuals and institutions ranging from Ross to Britain's Queen Elizabeth and trading firm Glencore <GLEN.L>.
The documents were obtained by Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and some media outlets. Reuters has not independently verified the documents.
"There is nothing wrong with anything that was done," Ross told CNBC, adding that he had not considered resigning following Sunday's report. Ross is a billionaire investor who is helping to shape Republican President Donald Trump's trade policy.
"There was disclosure, there is no impropriety and if people draw a contrary conclusion that's because the papers have twisted the story and made it into something that it's not there," Ross told the BBC.
U.S. media said partnerships used by Ross have a 31 percent stake in Navigator Holdings, which the New York Times said earns millions of dollars a year transporting gas for Russian petrochemical firm Sibur.
The Times, which based its report on files from prominent offshore law firm Appleby, said Sibur stakeholders include Gennady Timchenko, a Russian oligarch and Putin associate who is subject to U.S. sanctions, and Putin's son-in-law, Kirill Shamalov.
Navigator was mentioned in Ross's 57-page public financial disclosure report filed in December, before he officially joined the Trump administration. The Times said the latest batch of documents provided more insight into his financial holdings.
Reuters was not able to confirm the Times' findings.
Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat on the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, said Ross had deceived the public as well as lawmakers who had confirmed his appointment to Trump's Cabinet after he promised to divest such holdings.
The investments raised questions about whose interests Ross represents, Blumenthal said, calling for an inspector general probe by the department as well as congressional hearings.
"If he fails to present a clear and compelling explanation, he ought to resign," Blumenthal told MSNBC in an interview.
Scrutiny of any ties between Russia and Trump administration officials has intensified amid probes into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election campaign and potential collusion by the Trump campaign. The Kremlin has denied such meddling and Trump has denied any collusion.
In an earlier statement, a Department of Commerce spokesman said Ross "was not involved in Navigator's decision to engage in business with Sibur ... has never met the Sibur shareholders referenced in this story and, until now, did not know of their relationship".
He added that Sibur had not been under sanctions when Navigator began its relationship with the publicly-traded firm and still was not.
"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.
In a statement, Sibur said it had no direct dealings with Ross and that its ties to its partners were not in breach of sanctions imposed on Russia over the Ukraine crisis.
Neither Navigator nor Appleby were available for comment on Sunday evening. A spokesman for Timchenko declined to comment, while Shamalov did not immediately reply to an email seeking comment.
The Paradise Papers are the second release of its kind by the ICIJ, which last year published the "Panama Papers," leaked documents from Panama law firm Mossack Fonseca that chronicled a shadowy world of offshore holdings and hidden wealth.
In its report, the Times said Ross had kept the investment in Navigator, which increased its business dealings with Sibur, including chartering ships, even as Western nations sought to punish Russia’s energy sector over Putin's incursions into Ukraine.
"The Secretary recuses himself from matters focused on transoceanic shipping vessels," the Commerce Department spokesman said, adding that Ross maintains the "highest ethical standards."
Separately, the Times cited Appleby's files in another report that said hundreds of millions of dollars from the Kremlin were behind Russian billionaire investor Yuri Milner's investments in Facebook Inc <FB.O> and Twitter Inc <TWTR.N>.
Citing the Appleby documents, Britain's Guardian newspaper said millions of pounds from Queen Elizabeth's private estate, the Duchy of Lancaster, had been invested in a Cayman Islands fund as part of an offshore portfolio never before disclosed.
Reuters could not independently confirm the Guardian report.
The newspaper said the Duchy had used offshore private equity funds designed to shield investors in the United Kingdom from having to pay U.S. tax on their holdings.
A spokesman for Buckingham Palace declined to comment.
A spokeswoman for the Duchy of Lancaster said: "We operate a number of investments and a few of these are with overseas funds. All of our investments are fully audited and legitimate."
The spokeswoman also said the Queen voluntarily pays tax on any income received from the Duchy.
Citing the documents, Guardian also reported that international trading firm Glencore <GLEN.L> had "secretly loaned tens of millions of dollars" to Israeli businessman Dan Gertler, after enlisting him to secure a mining deal in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The British newspaper said Gertler had denied any wrongdoing. Reuters was not immediately able to contact him.
Glencore said in a statement sent to Reuters on Sunday, but dated Oct. 27 and addressed to the ICIJ, that it had made a loan to a company affiliated to Gertler in 2009 on commercial terms and that it was fully repaid.
"In February 2009, Glencore Finance (Bermuda) Ltd made a loan to Lora Enterprises Limited (Lora), an entity affiliated with Mr Gertler," the company said.
"The loan to Lora was made on commercial terms negotiated at arm's length," it said. "The loan was fully repaid by Lora in 2010."
(Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Additional reporting by Barbara Lewis, Mike Holden, Andy MacAskill and Andy Bruce in London, Katya Golubkova in Moscow, and Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Paul Simao, Mary Milliken, Raju Gopalakrishnan, Nick Tattersall and Frances Kerry)