to Article

Part 2: Focus on key Cabinet member

We flew from Bermuda via New York and arrived in Washington, D.C., after four hours and 40 minutes.The offices of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) are located on the fourth floor of a building near the White House.We were met with a shy smile by Sasha Chavkin, 34, who has worked in that office from four years ago. He explained to us the struggles he experienced dealing with the mountain of documents over the past year.

Sasha Chavkin, a reporter for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), responds to questions at ICIJ offices in Washington, D.C.

Sasha Chavkin, a reporter for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), responds to questions at ICIJ offices in Washington, D.C. (Photo taken on Oct. 12)

Hints of a connection
U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross (Reuters)

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross (Reuters)

At first, ICIJ reporters were unable to find even a hint of scandal when they began their work about a year ago.While the Panama Papers have been described as “the biggest leak in history,” the Paradise Papers were noticeably different because they contained the names of many American politicians and businessmen who were clients of a law firm based in a tax haven found in “paradise.”One name on that list was Wilbur Ross, the current U.S. commerce secretary.

A document created by Sasha Chavkin shows the connections between Wilbur Ross and a dozen or so companies.

A document created by Sasha Chavkin shows the connections between Wilbur Ross and a dozen or so companies. (Photo taken on Oct. 12)

In that role, Ross is in charge of U.S. trade policy. But before taking office, he was also a noted investor as well as billionaire. Digging through the Paradise Papers led quickly to his ties to at least a dozen or so companies.Further digging into other data led to the finding that a list of companies handled by the Appleby law firm included more than 60 that were part of the group led by Ross.It became clear that Ross had constructed a large offshore empire in a tax haven.

Ties to other companies
A tanker ship loaned by Navigator Holdings to SIBUR (Photo provided by LeSoir and taken at Antwerp, Belgium)

A tanker ship loaned by Navigator Holdings to SIBUR (Photo provided by LeSoir and taken at Antwerp, Belgium)

About two months after the research work began, the decision was made to dig further into the ties between Ross and other companies. At that time, Ross had been nominated to be a part of the Trump Cabinet.Among the factors looked at were the ties between the various companies with some connection to Ross as well as the flow of money. In particular, attention was focused on two companies in which Ross continued to own shares even after he became commerce secretary.Those two companies were found to have ties to the same shipping company--Navigator Holdings incorporated in the Marshall Islands.

Among the questions then raised were the type of business conducted by that shipping company as well as some of the favored customers of that company. Documents from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission led to the discovery of SIBUR, a Russian energy company involved in gas processing and petrochemicals, among the top five business partners of the shipping company.The next set of questions included the identity of the owner of that Russian company.That led to the surprising discovery of the names of such individuals as Russian President Vladimir Putin's son-in-law as well as a Russian businessman who was targeted for U.S. economic sanctions.“It was certainly a significant breakthrough,” Chavkin said. “It was an exciting moment.”Public documents backed up many of the revelations found in the Paradise Papers.“It was sort of like a puzzle where you could find different pieces from different sources, but you could only get the whole picture by putting it all together,” Chavkin said.

This is what that picture looks like:

Growing web of scandal

Around January, Mike McIntire, 53, a New York Times reporter who specializes in Russian issues, joined the reporting team. He was one of the reporters who won a Pulitzer Prize this year for reporting on the overseas strategy of Putin and the Russian government. His addition helped to further develop the research work.

Mike McIntire of the New York Times, left, who joined the investigative team, and Sasha Chavkin of the ICIJ (Photo taken on Oct. 16)

Mike McIntire of the New York Times, left, who joined the investigative team, and Sasha Chavkin of the ICIJ (Photo taken on Oct. 16)

In June, Chavkin shared the results of the news gathering to that point with other ICIJ reporters. Many said the results were simply fantastic, leading to even further additions to the reporting team.Sweden’s public broadcaster took footage of a ship of the shipping company. Other reporters checked the shipping records of the company’s ships as well as obtained background information from Russian insiders. Information continues to be gathered.Speaking of the experience of the past year, Chavkin said, “There have been a lot of different contributors who have added different things to this story.”

Reaction

In late October, McIntire of the New York Times sent a list of questions to Ross on behalf of the ICIJ.In response to an inquiry by the ICIJ, a Commerce Department press secretary issued a statement that said, “Secretary Ross has been generally supportive of the Administration’s sanctions of Russian entities. He works to ensure the highest ethical standards. He never met the three individuals (including Putin’s son-in-law).”The search for the truth as well as to uncover further scandal continues.

Reporting about the Paradise Papers began simultaneously around the world at 3 a.m., Japan time, on Nov. 6, 2017. Attention will now focus on how the individuals connected to various suspicions raised by the documents will respond.