Former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao used her office to boost the reputation of her family’s shipping business, the agency’s internal watchdog said in a report released Wednesday.
The Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General’s report states that Chao took part in four kinds of ethics violations including planning to bring relatives on an official trip to China, requiring Department of Transportation public affairs staff to promote her father’s book and using agency staff and resources to complete personal tasks.
“The DOT Inspector General’s report, in addition to documents we obtained, demonstrate that Secretary Chao used her official position and taxpayer resources for the benefit of herself and her family,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., chair of the House committee on oversight and reform, said in a statement. “Secretary Chao’s flagrant abuse of her office provides further evidence that additional ethics and transparency reforms are needed.”
Chao, who is married to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, served in former President Donald Trump’s cabinet until she resigned following the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol. She also served as labor secretary under President Geroge W. Bush.
The report also investigated Chao’s influence over discretionary grants to her home state of Kentucky and found no irregularities but did criticize a lack of transparency in the Department of Transportation’s grantmaking process.
Investigators from the inspector general’s office in December referred their findings to the Justice Department’s U.S. Attorney’s Office and its Public Integrity Section, but both declined to open criminal investigations.
The report states that Chao “made extensive plans” to include family members in events during a planned trip to China in November 2017 that would have included stops at schools and other locations that received support from her family’s business.
Ultimately the trip was canceled and Chao later agreed to refrain from scheduling media events involving her family without consulting the ethics office.
Chao also directed public affairs staff to market her father’s biography, keep a running list of awards he received and edit his Wikipedia page.
“The Secretary directed to OST staffers to send a copy of [the biography] to a well-known CEO of a major U.S. corporation (which is not regulated by DOT) along with a letter requesting that he write a foreword for the book and sample a foreword,” the report states.
Additionally, Chao tasked political appointees on her staff to contact the Department of Homeland Security regarding the status of a work permit application for a student at a U.S. university, who was a recipient of her family’s philanthropic foundation.
The report also found she used staff to check on repairs of an item at a store for her father and to send Christmas ornaments to her family.
Maloney and Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chairman of the House committee on transportation and infrastructure, requested the investigation in 2019 amid reports of multiple ethics violations by Chao.
“While I commend the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General for conducting this review, I am disappointed that it was not completed and released while Secretary Chao was still in office,” DeFazio said.
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