A Forbes report alleging that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross “grifted” $120 million from former business partners has been widely slammed for relying heavily on anonymous sources and being laced with “petty” accusations, raising questions of whether the magazine’s Chinese owners were ultimately bashing Ross for his tough pro-American stance in trade talks with Beijing.
“What struck me as suspicious was the extensive use of anonymous sources,” Michael Pillsbury, a Hudson Institute senior fellow who worked in the Reagan and George H.W Bush administrations, told Newsmax. “The majority of Forbes allegations against Wilbur Ross appear to be from anonymous sources.”
Anders Corr, who was fired last year after alleging censorship by Forbes editors over a piece he had written about Hong Kong billionaire Ronnie Chan, did not rule out Chinese influence in the publication’s journalism.
“In my experience at Forbes, some editors had a pro-China bias, perhaps due to Forbes’ ownership by a Hong Kong media company, or perhaps due to influential editors and personages at Forbes, who had personal relationships with Hong Kong’s billionaire, Ronnie Chan.
In 2014, a majority stake in Forbes magazine’s parent company, Forbes Media Inc., was acquired by a Hong Kong investment group, Integrated Whale Media, in a transaction valued at $475 million.
Forbes magazine, which has championed free markets since its founding in 1917, is headed by former two-time Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes.
“It is plausible that this pro-China bias at Forbes translated into a greater willingness to commit investigative resources to what might be perceived as enemies of China, for example members of the Trump administration,” Corr said.
The report, by Forbes staffer Dan Alexander, was published Aug. 7 on forbes.com and was based on interviews “over several months … with 21 people who know Ross,” though not one was identified.
It alleged that the commerce secretary “wrongly siphoned or outright stole a few million here and a few million there” and that the accusations “sparked lawsuits, reimbursements and an SEC fine” and totaled more than $120 million.
“If even half of the accusations are legitimate, the current United States secretary of commerce could rank among the biggest grifters in American history,” the report alleged.
The report included assertions from two former Ross colleagues who said they saw him “taking handfuls of Sweet’n Low packets from a nearby restaurant, so he didn’t have to go out and buy some for himself.”
But in the same paragraph, Alexander reported: “A Commerce official called the tales ‘petty nonsense,’ and added that Ross does not put sweetener in his coffee.”
“The most vivid item aimed at smearing Ross’ character was the claim he was an alleged thief for stealing Sweet’n Low packages from a restaurant,” Pillsbury told Newsmax, noting that it came from “anonymous sources.”
Pillsbury’s latest book is “The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower.”
The Commerce Department immediately ripped Alexander’s report, however, saying it was based on “false rumors, innuendo, and unverifiable claims.”
“The fact remains that no regulator has made any of these accusations against the secretary,” the agency said in a statement. “This rehash of old stories is clearly the result of a personal vendetta.
“The baseless claims made in this story were well publicized long ago and are not news.”
Reached for comment Thursday, Alexander denied to Newsmax that the report smacked of any vendetta against Ross — “no, of course not” — and he pointed to a nine-post Twitter feed ripping the agency’s response.
A Forbes spokeswoman also made reference to Alexander’s feed in an email to Newsmax.
Ross, 80, stepped down last year as CEO of WL Ross & Co., the private-equity firm he founded in 2000, after President Donald Trump named him commerce secretary.
The company has been a unit of Invesco Ltd., an Atlanta-based investment management company, since 2006.
Ross, once a darling of Forbes and a marquee name at many of the publication’s global seminars, seemingly has became a target since joining the Trump administration.
In U.S. trade talks with China, Ross has taken a hard line — visiting Beijing in May with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and other Trump administration officials for talks with senior Chinese government personnel.
Ross said afterward that the countries were “pretty far apart” on trade — and the administration on Tuesday toughened its position by listing $16 billion in Chinese imports that will face 25 percent tariffs later this month.
In July, the White House slapped 25 percent duties on $34 billion in Beijing goods — and China hit back with tariffs on an equal amount of U.S. products.
The month before, Ross announced that the administration had fined ZTE Corp., China’s No. 2 telecommunications equipment maker, $1 billion in lifting a ban on buying from U.S. suppliers.
The move, despite harsh congressional opposition, had allowed ZTE to get back into business.
“We think this settlement, which brought the company, a $17 billion company, to its knees, more or less put them out of business … should serve as a very strong deterrent not only for them but for other potential bad actors,” Ross told CNBC.
Since Integrated Whale took over, Forbes has been embroiled in controversy over its China coverage.
In February 2016, Corr wrote an opinion piece comparing China to North Korea, The Washington Post reports, labeling Chinese President Xi Jinping a “dictator” similar to Kim Jong Un.
A Forbes editor afterward emailed Corr that the article contained “problematic” language, the Post reports, and said that likening Xi to a dictator was “not accurate.”
In July 2017, Corr wrote a story about Chan, the Hong Kong billionaire who is trustee of the Asia Society, alleging Chinese influence at the New York-based organization.
Forbes removed the piece days later, telling The Hong Kong Free Press that “it’s standard practice for us to remove articles if we feel there are certain issues — editorial or not — that we need to address.”
An Asia Society official also told the website that it had “not been in contact with Forbes about the story in question.”
Corr was then dismissed after alleging censorship on Facebook and accusing Chan of pressuring the magazine to take down the article, the Post reports.
“The Hong Kong company’s purchase seems as if it weakened” Forbes’ coverage of China, lamented Asia Society senior fellow Isaac Stone Fish in the December report in the Post, “and serves as a warning lesson for other formerly storied media outlets that might consider Chinese buyers in the future.”
He then quoted Ray Kwong of the China Institute at the University of Southern California, a former Forbes blogger, who described recent Beijing coverage as “disheartening and lame.”
Newsmax opinion writer Michael Dorstewitz contributed to this report.
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