Internal watchdog said ex-Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao misused position, referred case for prosecution

Elaine Chao fired up the crowd for her husband, Senator Mitch McConnell, at a rally at Gaffney's Farm in Versailles, Kentucky, on the eve of the election. Nov. 2, 2020

The U.S. Transportation Department’s inspector general’s office formally investigated former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao for potential violations of ethics rules and misuse of her position — and ultimately referred the case for criminal prosecution in late 2020.

The inspector general’s investigation focused, among other things, on how Chao — who is married to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. — may have aided her family’s shipping company, Foremost Group, which does significant business in China, according to a report that was publicly released this week.

Foremost Group is helmed by her father, James S.C. Chao, and her sister, Angela Chao. Neither Elaine Chao nor McConnell as a financial stake in the company, based on publicly available information and financial disclosure forms.

The inspector general’s investigation uncovered evidence “relating to potential ethics concerns arising from the actions” of Chao and certain members of her staff “under her direction,” including:

  • Involving family members and personal events in her planned-but-cancelled November 2017 trip to China;
  • Providing Transportation Department public affairs and media support to her father;
  • Tasking political appointees with contacting the U.S. Department of Homeland Security about a work permit application from a foreign college student who received philanthropic support from the Chao family and interviewed Chao’s father with the goal of sharing “his story with Chinese millennials”;
  • Devoting departmental resources and staff time to tasks for Chao “that appear to be personal in nature.”

Concerning the aborted visit to China, the inspector general’s report said, among other things, that Transportation Department staff “arranged logistical support” for members of Chao’s family who were expected to join her on the trip. The report also said some events on the preliminary itinerary appeared connected to either her family’s shipping company or a Chao family foundation.

As for the media support provided to Chao’s father, the inspector general’s report said that included instances in which departmental staff “were directed to help promote” his biography.

The inspector general’s office determined in late 2019 that a formal investigation was warranted concerning Chao’s possible misuse of her position in former President Donald Trump’s administration, according to a letter Deputy Inspector General Mitch Behm sent this week to the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

The findings of the ensuing investigation were sent to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section in December 2020, but both agencies declined to prosecute the matter, according to Behm.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said there “may be ethical and/or administrative issues to address but there is not predication to open a criminal investigation,” the report states.

The inspector general’s office offered Chao the opportunity to weigh in on the ethics-related issues it was investigating but was told she had nothing to add beyond a prior memorandum that said: “No matter how much success she has achieved in her own career, Secretary Chao, like many Asian Americans, has never forgotten her roots as an Asian American immigrant and the appreciation she feels for her parents, who have worked so hard and sacrificed so much …”

The memo also stressed that demonstrating respect for one’s parents is an important value in Asian communities and said Chao “enhances her reputation and advances the interests of the Department by strengthening her effectiveness … as a representative of the Federal Government to Asian cultural communities” by publicly expressing filial piety and “taking advantage of reasonable opportunities to include her father in ceremonial functions.”

Also:Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announces she’s resigning from her position

Sen. Mitch McConnell with his wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Nov. 4, 2020

Chaoresigned as transportation secretary in early January, not long before her tenure originally was slated to end, in the wake of the violent, pro-Trump riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, which she called an “entirely avoidable event” and said in a statement: “As I’m sure is the case with many of you, it has deeply troubled me in a way that I simply cannot set aside.”

The inspector general’s office determined in late 2019 that there wasn’t a sufficient basis to formally investigate federal grant money that went to Kentucky during Chao’s tenure as the head of the Transportation Department. (Kentuckians’ access to Chao had been scrutinized in past news reporting.)

Reach reporter Morgan Watkins: 502-582-4502; mwatkins@courierjournal.com; Twitter: @morganwatkins26.

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