Three business days after Mr. Ross was contacted by The New York Times for a forthcoming article about those ties, he took out a short position valued at between $100,000 and $250,000 on Navigator’s stock — essentially a bet that the stock’s value would decrease — putting him in a position to potentially profit from negative news about the company. The company’s stock price fell roughly 4 percent before Mr. Ross closed his position, 11 days after The Times and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists published an article on his ties to Navigator.
In a response in June, Mr. Ross said that the information the reporter had contacted him about was not “market-moving” and that making money was not the goal of the short sale.
The letter from the Office of Government Ethics also cited Mr. Ross for failing to sell stock in a company called Invesco, the parent company of his private equity firm, W.L. Ross & Co., in keeping with his ethics agreement. Mr. Ross signed a form in November 2017 saying he had completed divestitures that he had agreed to earlier that year, but in December, he submitted a report revealing that he had not sold the Invesco stake until Dec. 19-20.
The office said that an internal Commerce Department investigation that reviewed Mr. Ross’s calendars, briefing books and correspondence did not indicate the presence of a criminal violation, and that it had no evidence to contradict Mr. Ross’s argument that the omissions and inaccuracies were inadvertent. However, it added that even inadvertent errors could damage public trust and violate criminal conflict of interest law. Federal ethics rules prohibit government employees from using information they view in the course of their work for private profit.
“It is a serious matter, particularly when you’re dealing with someone like the secretary of Commerce, who has his finger on so many decisions that affect businesses and financial investments,” said Richard Briffault, a professor at Columbia Law School.
Potential ethics violations have dogged several high-profile members of the Trump administration, including Scott Pruitt, the former chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, who resigned last week after facing questions about his spending, travel and conduct, and Tom Price, the former secretary of health and human services, who resigned last year after drawing criticism for spending at least $400,000 on chartered flights.
Forbes removed Mr. Ross from its list of the 400 richest Americans in 2017, after his ethics disclosures showed his assets to be less than $700 million, a fraction of what Forbes had previously reported and what Mr. Ross had previously claimed.