A Democratic-affiliated group is asking the Department of Transportation’s inspector general to open an inquiry into whether Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao gave preferential treatment and steered millions of federal transportation dollars to the home state of her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
The request was lodged Tuesday by American Democracy Legal Fund, an arm of the liberal super PAC, American Bridge. It says Chao’s actions appear to be a “flagrant misuse of her official position” and may violate federal ethics rules that govern conflicts of interest.
The complaint comes a week after Politico reported that Chao had designated a special liaison in her office to handle Kentucky transportation projects.
A Department of Transportation spokesperson said Chao, through her position as Transportation Secretary, “is a convenient target for those who oppose the work she is doing for the American people. These disingenuous attacks are simply political hit jobs filled with innuendos that continue to be rejected every time they are recycled.”
Using emails between Chao and McConnell’s office obtained under a Freedom of Information request filed by American Oversight, a watchdog group formed after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, Politico reported that a Chao staffer wrote to McConnell’s office in 2017 saying “the Secretary has indicated if you have a Ky-specific issue that we should flag for her attention to please continue to go through your normal channels but feel free to contact me directly as well so we can monitor or follow up as necessary.”
The email was sent in February 2017 as Chao took office and was not specific to grants, a Department of Transportation official said.
Federal records show that Kentucky has secured nearly $80 million in federal transportation grants during Chao’s tenure. A Department of Transportation spokesperson said no state receives special treatment and that of 169 grants made to projects in 50 states and Washington, D.C., Kentucky received five. The department said Chao’s chief of staff does not provide technical support and that the applications are evaluated by career staff using “a thorough process developed well before this administration.
“The department diligently implements grant programs consistent with congressional direction and in accordance with robust selection criteria,” the spokesman said.
McConnell last week brushed off the perception that he got special treatment.
“I was complaining to her just last night, 169 projects and Kentucky got only five,” he told reporters. “I hope we’ll do a lot better next year.”
The letter to Inspector General Calvin Scovel notes that other states do not appear to have special intermediaries and suggests that Chao’s “use of a liaison to advance Kentucky infrastructure projects was for the benefit of her husband’s political career.” It notes that days before he launched his 2020 reelection campaign, McConnell visited one of the grant sites.
McConnell does not yet have a Democratic challenger, but is a top target for national Democrats who believe his lackluster poll numbers in Kentucky make him vulnerable.
The letter alleges that federal ethics regulations prohibit a federal employee from using public office for private gain or for the gain of relatives.
“By providing special resources to her husband’s office and paving the way for millions of taxpayer dollars to be funneled into politically favorable projects, Secretary Chao appears to have misused the duties of her office and brazenly exploited a conflict of interest for personal gain,” the letter states.
The letter also accuses Chao of a “pattern of ethical violations,” citing recent scrutiny of the Trump Cabinet official, including a New York Times article about her interactions with her family and its shipping company, which does extensive business in China.
It also cites a Wall Street Journal story that noted Chao had retained shares in a company that manufactures highway construction materials, despite a pledge to sell the stock.
Chao sold the Vulcan Materials stock last week, even as she and a DOT ethics official noted that she had been told that holding the stocks “did not create a conflict of interest.”
A Department of Transportation spokesperson said that Chao’s decision to divest “demonstrates her commitment to going above and beyond what is required in terms of compliance.”
The spokesman said Chao received stock in Ingersoll Rand and Vulcan Materials as part of deferred compensation packages. The deferred compensation was paid out in the form of stock, according to the companies’ plans, the spokesman said.
Due to a misunderstanding, her ethics disclosures mis-characterized transactions as “cash payouts,” rather than “stock payouts,” the spokesman said.