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U.S. Senate Confirms Commerce Head Despite Questions About Russia Ties

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Wilbur Ross testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee in Washington, D.C., last month.

Wilbur Ross testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee in Washington, D.C., last month.

The U.S. Senate has confirmed President Donald Trump's pick to serve as commerce secretary, despite questions about his possible ties with Russian oligarchs.

The Senate voted 72 to 27 for Wilbur Ross, a billionaire investor who specialized in taking over troubled businesses. Democrats raised questions about Ross's ties with Russia in his role since 2014 as vice chairman of the board of the Bank of Cyprus, the largest bank in Cyprus.

The bank, which was saved from bankruptcy in 2013 by a bailout from the Eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund, is the second-largest shareholder in the Russian conglomerate Lamesa Holding, owned by the Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, whose fortune is valued at more than $12 billion by Forbes.

Ross's predecessor as vice chairman of the bank's board was Vladimir Strzhalkovsky, a former KGB agent known to be close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Earlier this month, six Democratic senators sent a letter to Ross asking him whether the Bank of Cyprus had lent to Trump's real estate group, the Trump Organization.

"The United States Senate and the American public deserve to know the full extent of your connections with Russia and your knowledge of any ties between the Trump Administration, Trump Campaign, or Trump Organization and the Bank of Cyprus," the senators wrote.

The senators also called on Ross to say whether he had any contact with Russian officials or agents during the presidential campaign.

Senator Elizabeth Warren criticized Ross's business ties to Russia and the way he ran a mortgage lender that foreclosed on many U.S. homeowners during the housing crisis.

"Ross has extensive ties to Russia. He plans to keep making money from his major oil-shipping companies while working as commerce secretary. He's made billions off the backs of struggling homeowners," Warren said. "He is practically a cartoon stereotype of a Wall Street fat cat."

None of the questions about Russian ties were raised at Ross's confirmation hearing, however, and he never provided any answers before the Senate voted on his nomination.

The strong vote in his favor showed many Democrats did not oppose the nomination despite questions raised by some.

Ross's chief mission upon taking office will be to try to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, as well as other trade agreements strongly opposed by Trump.

With reporting by AP, Reuters, and AFP
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