Elaine Chao, Trump's transportation secretary, used her office to boost Mitch McConnell: report

Efforts reportedly generated at least $78 million in grants for pet projects ahead of McConnell's re-election bid

By Matthew Rozsa

Published June 10, 2019 3:48PM (EDT)

Elaine Chao; Mitch McConnell (Getty/Jeff Swensen)
Elaine Chao; Mitch McConnell (Getty/Jeff Swensen)

Elaine Chao, President Donald Trump's transportation secretary, has been accused of using her office to boost the political fortunes of her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

A new report from Politico claims that Chao created a special liaison position for an individual to assist "with grant applications and other priorities" for the state of Kentucky, which McConnell represents. Those efforts reportedly generated at least $78 million in grants for pet projects of McConnell ahead of his re-election race next year.

As Politico noted:

Chao’s aide Todd Inman, who stated in an email to McConnell’s Senate office that Chao had personally asked him to serve as an intermediary, helped advise the senator and local Kentucky officials on grants with special significance for McConnell — including a highway-improvement project in a McConnell political stronghold that had been twice rejected for previous grant applications.

Politico also reports that Inman met annually with the transportation secretary, beginning in April of 2017 with a delegation from the Kentucky community of Owensboro to discuss a proposal to expedite re-classifying a local parkway as an Interstate spur and improving road connections to a commercial river port. Inman allegedly provided the river port authority with advice on how to improve its application and discussed the road connections endeavor with Daviess County chief executive Al Mattingly.

The news outlet also discussed a $67 million discretionary grant given to rural Boone County to upgrade its roads — one provided after Boone County Judge/Executive Gary Moore met with Chao in December 2017.

In a statement to Politico, Inman said, "I’m proud to work for the secretary, and it’s an honor to work at the Department of Transportation, especially as this administration is prioritizing infrastructure investments and meeting with people from all 50 states to discuss their needs. Our team of dedicated career staff does an outstanding job evaluating hundreds of applications for these highly competitive grant programs, a thorough process developed well before this administration."

Meanwhile, a Transportation Department spokesman insisted that neither Kentucky or any other state had received "special treatment" from their department. The spokesman added that "the evaluation process, which is well known, originates with dedicated career staff thoroughly reviewing applications before senior review teams are involved. This evaluation takes thousands of hours across our discretionary grant programs. Similarly, a team of career staff handles cost-benefit and project readiness review. Discretionary grant programs are competitive and based on merit and how well the projects align with selection criteria."

This is far from the first ethics controversy Chao has faced since taking office. Last month, it was revealed that she had not fully divested herself from stock in Vulcan Materials, a construction-materials company, despite promising she would do so in an ethics report.

In 2017, Chao made a series of requests involving her first visit to China as an official member of Trump's Cabinet, which raised alarms among federal officials concerned with ethics. Her requests, revealed by the New York Times, included having her relatives in meetings with government officials and having those federal officials coordinate travel arrangements for at least one of her family members. Chao's family runs an American shipping company, the Foremost Group, which is connected to China's political and economic ruling class.

"She had these relatives who were fairly wealthy and connected to the shipping industry. Their business interests were potentially affected by meetings," a State Department official, who was involved in deliberations pertaining to the meetings, told the Times. Another State Department official, David Rank, told the Times the requests were "alarmingly inappropriate."

Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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