In an earlier far more innocent era, my mother told me you will be judged by the friends you keep. For many Americans, this was axiomatic. However, in this cynical era, you are often judged by who you know or who knows you. In some sense, this is a Kafkaesque arrangement where judgments and the assignment of guilt are made without knowledge or forethought.
Take, for example, the stories emanating from revelations of the Paradise Papers. This massive trove of 13.4 million records was founded 100 years ago and operates in various points around the globe managing the assets of very wealthy people. Reflecting millions of loans, financial transactions and e-mails, the data reveal how wealthy individuals manage their portfolios.
Recently a German newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, unraveled the connections indicating how the wealthy sometimes avoid taxes and make business deals.
Wilbur Ross, the Secretary of Commerce, was caught in the web of these revelations. Despite divesting himself of most business interests when he joined the Trump cabinet, he kept a shipping company, Navigator Holdings, through a chain of companies in the Cayman Islands. Discussing Ross’ Paradise Papers file Jon Swaine of the Guardian noted that Navigator is a company operated by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s son-in-law an allegation that put Ross in the journalistic crosshairs.
The very mention of a transaction in which Russia is included is now branded “collusion.”
Navigator is paid $20 million a year to ship gas out of Russia for a Russian company named Sibur and Sibur is co-owned by Kirill Shamalov, Putin’s son-in-law. Commenting on this matter, Ross said “there is nothing whatsoever improper about Navigator having a relationship with Sibur.” He continued, “The fact that it happens to be called a Russian company does not mean that there’s any evil in it.” That is true on several levels.
This is a third party transaction in which the investor through a holding company joined a deal worth at least $200 a year. Mr. Ross probably knew very little about the transaction and, my guess is, he was unaware of any Russian involvement.
Moreover, the deal does not violate any laws, nor is there any suspicion that is the case. It would appear as if this is a witch hunt in which any reference to Russia is a form of collusion. Clearly this falls into the category of “false news.” But it has even darker implications.
The very mention of a transaction in which Russia is included is now branded “collusion.” You might even describe this phenomenon as contemporary McCarthyism, albeit McCarthy made allegations about those who joined the Communist Party as opposed to present claims that have a gossamer thin relationship to Russian officials.
My guess is these claims aren’t going anywhere, certainly not into the hands of Mr. Mueller, the Special Counsel. But these violations of privacy and reputation should not be overlooked. It is precisely the frivolous investigations of this kind that discourage good people from government service.
The Paradise Papers are certainly not the Pumpkin Papers and, in time, their salacious stories will be replaced. Unfortunately, it will leave in its wake a number of unsubstantiated claims and reputations that have been unfairly besmirched.