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Ross aide served on Navigator's board while working at Commerce

A top adviser to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross served on the board of Navigator Holdings, a shipping company whose clients include a Russian energy company with Kremlin ties, while she was working in the Trump administration.

Wendy Teramoto retained her seat on Navigator’s board after joining Commerce in mid-March as a part-time adviser to Ross, one of the most influential voices in President Donald Trump’s ear on global trade and economic policy. She also continued to serve as an executive of Ross’s private equity firm WL Ross & Co. after becoming a government employee.

Teramoto didn’t resign her seat on Navigator’s board until July 17, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. She left WL Ross that same month. On Aug. 1, she was formally named Ross’s chief of staff.

Her role with Navigator is notable because Ross has come under scrutiny after the release of a cache of documents on Sunday that showed him profiting from investments in Navigator, which does significant business with Sibur, an energy company partly owned by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s son-in-law. Sibur has not been subject to U.S. sanctions on Russian energy companies, though one of its owners is, according to the ICIJ report.

Ross has denied any wrongdoing. He has recused himself from transoceanic shipping matters and has said that he met all disclosure requirements, despite some Democratic lawmakers’ claim that the link between his investments and Russia were not fully revealed.

The matter has also grabbed attention because relationships between senior members of Trump’s inner circle and Russia are under increasing scrutiny from prosecutors and congressional investigators.

The overlap between Teramoto’s board tenure and her time at the Commerce Department could be problematic because it’s yet another point of connection between Russian financial interests and the Trump administration, even if no government violations occurred. It’s also not known whether Teramoto was receiving compensation from Navigator or influencing company decisions while she was serving at Commerce.

A Commerce spokesman downplayed Teramoto’s role, describing her job from March 14 until Aug. 1 as a “part-time special government position as an advisor to the Secretary of Commerce.”

Before being named the secretary’s full-time chief-of-staff on Aug. 1, she resigned from outside non-federal positions, the spokesman said.

Teramoto did not respond to a request for comment, and the Commerce Department press shop did not respond to a more detailed list of questions regarding Teramoto’s employment.

Two government employees who have worked with Teramoto described her role at Commerce during the months she remained on Navigator’s board as more significant, saying she was Ross’s closest ally and aide.

Along with Ross, Teramoto attended President Donald Trump’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort in early April, according to one of the government employees, who was familiar with the guest list.

By mid-April, Teramoto was trading emails with officials at Commerce, Treasury, the National Security Council, and the U.S. Trade Representative.

The Commerce spokesman said Teramoto signed an ethics pledge upon her initial appointment to the agency and is subject to the same disqualification requirements under conflict of interest statutes as the secretary and other federal employees.

He also said Ross was not involved with Navigator negotiations with Sibur.

“Secretary Ross has never met the Sibur shareholders referenced in this story and, until now, did not know of their relationship,” the spokesman said. Ross has recused himself from matters involving trans-oceanic shipping vessels and supports the Trump administration’s sanctions against Russian entities, the spokesman said.

A spokeswoman at Navigator did not respond to questions about Teramoto’s compensation as a board member or the timing of her resignation. Executives of the petrochemical shipping company met in August at the Coral Beach and Tennis Club in Bermuda to vote in her replacement on the board, according to the company’s SEC filings.

Ross’s namesake company, WL Ross & Co., is Navigator’s biggest shareholder and has the right to designate two directors to the shipping company’s board. In January, Ross said he would divest holdings in WL Ross, its parent company and other firms.

Ross said Monday in an interview with the BBC that there is “nothing whatsoever improper” about the relationship between Navigator and Sibur.

Jeaneen Terrio, a spokeswoman for WL Ross parent company Invesco, declined to answer questions about Teramoto’s tenure at the company except to confirm that Teramoto left in July.

Richard Painter, who served as a White House chief ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush, said that even part-time employees are subject to conflict-of-interest statutes. Serving on the board of a company or holding stock could be a conflict, Painter said, if Teramoto worked on policy issues that had a direct effect on Navigator’s bottom line.

“The key to all of this is understanding what both she and Secretary Ross were doing at Commerce,” Painter said.

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