American Oversight obtained records revealing that Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao met multiple times with Kentucky politicians and business leaders in response to requests from the office of her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
While it’s not unusual for congressional offices to contact cabinet members with constituent requests, the emails reveal that issues specific to the couple’s home state of Kentucky received a special priority. In one instance, Department of Transportation (DOT) official Todd Inman, who was a Republican political operative in Kentucky and is now Chao’s chief of staff, told McConnell staffers to notify him of Kentucky-specific requests “so we can monitor or follow up as necessary.”
“There’s a normal channel and a Kentucky channel,” American Oversight Executive Director Austin Evers told Politico, which reported on the coordination between the two offices. “It would be surprising if there was also an Arizona channel and a California channel.” In fact, in one email sent to McConnell’s office, Inman listed “Kentucky” as one of his responsibilities, along with a list of duties for 26 other staffers that included no other states.
In one March 2017 email, McConnell state director Terry Carmack emailed Inman to request a meeting between Chao and the industry group Kentuckians for Better Transportation. If Chao is unavailable, Carmack asks whether it would be “possible to host them at DOT, and get an assistant secretary or 2 to meet with them? That way it is not taking up the Secretary’s time but they feel special.” Chao ultimately met with the group just over two months later.
American Oversight launched its investigation after Trump appointed Chao to head DOT to determine the nature of the working relationship between the majority leader and the new cabinet secretary. In early 2018, we filed a FOIA for records of communications between DOT officials and McConnell’s office — and after the agency failed to respond, we went to court.
The emails show at least ten meetings Chao had with Kentucky officials and business leaders following requests from McConnell’s office, including one with County Judge/Executive Terry Martin, who was described as a “loyal supporter” by the McConnell staffer making the request.
Chao met with Martin later that month, and again a year later. Chao also met with someone from Kentucky’s Taylor Motors in July 2017, three months after Cormack had forwarded a meeting request to Inman from Taylor Motors’ general manager, Greg Delancey, who Cormack said was “about to be the first district GOP chair.”
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