The U.S. Transportation Department’s internal watchdog claims that former Secretary Elaine Chao potentially committed ethical violations during her tenure in the role as part of the Trump administration.
Through a spokesperson, Chao dismissed the allegations.
Chao allegedly used her position improve her financial holdings and to aid her family’s shipping business in China. The company, founded by her father when he move to the U.S. in the 1950s and currently run by her sister, benefitted from influence with trade officials, according to the report from the deputy inspector general.
Reportedly, she also engaged her staff in activities designed to improve the company’s image, such as editing and updating her father’s resume and biography.
According to a letter sent to Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon), chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure sent on March 2 from Mitch Behm, Deputy Inspector General at the DOT, a preliminary investigation concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence to initiate a formal investigation. Instead he referred the case to the Justice Department for prosecution in December, the Washington Post reported.
Report suggests ethics violations
Chao is the wife of Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell. She resigned from her post on Jan. 7, the day after the Capitol riot. At the time of her departure, an aide to Chao said her resignation was unrelated to the inspector general’s investigation.
Her tenure technically ended Jan. 20 when Joseph Biden was sworn in as the new President of the United States, but she left early.
The letter did, however, state that DOT “concluded that a formal investigation into potential misuses of position was warranted. We initiated our formal investigation in December 2019, and the results of that investigation have been documented in a report of investigation.”
The whole process began in October and December 2019, when DeFazio sent letters asking the DOT to investigate potential conflicts of interest and favoritism involving Chao.
In his letters to the DOT, DeFazio expressed concerns about Chao’s meetings with local officials in Kentucky and the role former Chief of Staff Todd Inman played “with respect to Federal grants benefiting Kentucky. You also noted questions regarding Secretary Chao’s actions relating to her family’s shipping business as well as her financial holdings in Vulcan Materials, a stone and asphalt producer.”
Behm also stated that prior to getting DeFazio’s October 2019 letter, the DOT Inspector General’s office “had opened a preliminary review covering similar matters related to Secretary Chao in response to questions raised in press reports and correspondence from the public.”
The report stated the department’s inspector general found that Chao used her staff and office for personal tasks and to promote a shipping business owned by Chao’s father and sisters, in an apparent violation of federal ethics rules.
DOJ declines to bring charges
But when the inspector general’s office referred its findings to the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington and prosecutors at the Justice Department who focus on public integrity cases, both declined to bring charges.
Behm’s letter stated that in “accordance with Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) investigative process and Federal investigation standards, the Office of Investigations referred its findings to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia on December 16, 2020, and the U.S. Department of Justice Public Integrity Section on December 17, 2020, both of which declined prosecution.”
In addition to the earlier examples of violations, investigators noted Chao instructed political appointees to contact the Department of Homeland Security about “the status of a work permit application submitted by a foreign student studying at a U.S. university who was a recipient of Chao family philanthropy.”.
She also reportedly told government employees to include her relatives in preparations for high-level official meetings that were to take place in 2017 in China, where investigators said her family members were to participate alongside senior U.S. officials.
The report did state that none of the Transportation Department employees interviewed “described feeling ordered or coerced to perform personal or inappropriate tasks for the secretary.”
A Chao spokesperson said the report and subsequent lack of action by the DOJ point to trumped up charges.
“This report exonerates the Secretary from baseless accusations and closes the book on an election-year effort to impugn her history-making career as the first Asian American woman appointed to a President’s Cabinet and her outstanding record,” a Chao spokesman said in a statement issued to the media.