Elaine Chao’s Family Business and Kentucky Favoritism

Elaine Chao’s tenure as transportation secretary has been marked by significant ethics concerns and reports of favoritism, from special treatment for Kentucky-specific requests to efforts to boost her family’s shipping company or bolster the political agenda of her husband, Sen. Mitch McConnell.

Elaine Chao joined the Trump administration as secretary of transportation in January 2017, having previously served as secretary of labor under George W. Bush, where she was criticized for shifting away from the agency’s enforcement practices. While at the Department of Transportation (DOT), Chao’s prioritization of Kentucky interests and potential involvement in her family’s international shipping business has drawn concerns of favoritism and unchecked conflicts of interest. 

Chao’s priorities also came under scrutiny in early 2019 after American Oversight uncovered emails showing that the secretary’s office had coordinated with the office of her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, to give special treatment to Kentucky-specific requests. The emails include a request from McConnell staff to make an industry group “feel special” and a message from Chao’s chief of staff instructing an aide to allow requests from McConnell’s state director to bypass the normal scheduling process.

At the same time Chao’s Kentucky favoritism was coming to light, questions were also arising about her role in her family’s prominent shipping company, Foremost Group. In June 2019, the New York Times reported on how Chao’s position in the Trump administration had “boosted the profile” of Foremost. In one instance from 2017, an official at the American embassy in Beijing sent an email to the Department of State seeking ethics advice about questionable arrangements for a Transportation Department trip to China. Among the official’s concerns were requests from Chao’s office for accommodations for Chao family members associated with Foremost Group. Chao subsequently canceled the trip.

Following the Times report, American Oversight obtained and published official calendars revealing that her actions on behalf of her family’s company included a private photo session with her father, James Chao, and Foremost Group employees at the Department of Transportation as well as a past speaking engagement. That same summer, following a Wall Street Journal report, Chao sold her shares of construction company Vulcan Materials, more than a year past the deadline she had initially pledged for divestment. In September, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform announced an investigation into Chao’s business ties, citing her Vulcan Materials investments, the canceled China trip, and her public appearances alongside her father. 

Since then, additional reporting from Politico, citing documents uncovered by American Oversight, found that 25 percent of Chao’s meetings with local officials in her first 14 months as secretary were with officials from Kentucky, many of those meetings having been arranged through McConnell’s office, which notified Chao’s staffers which of the officials were “loyal supporters.” McConnell’s campaign team retweeted report, framing it as evidence of McConnell’s commitment to local and state political interests. 

American Oversight is investigating Chao’s ties to her family’s business and the extent of her preferential treatment for Kentucky and friends of McConnell to shed light on whether the secretary has used her position for personal gain.

LITIGATION

On May 31, 2018, American Oversight sued the Department of Transportation for communications between McConnell’s office and Chao’s staff. The emails referenced in Politico’s February 2019 story about McConnell-Chao office coordination were obtained in response to this lawsuit, and can be found here.

On June 10, 2019, American Oversight filed a lawsuit on behalf of Restore Public Trust against the Transportation Department for the communications between senior department staff and individuals and entities linked to Foremost Group. The suit also requests Chao’s travel records. 

On June 17, 2019, American Oversight sued the Transportation Department for further communications between McConnell’s office and department officials, as well as for the calendars of Chao and senior staff including Todd Inman. 

Related Documents

July 31, 2020

FOIA to DOT for Communications About CARES Act Funding for Kentucky Airports

Department of Transportation
FOIA Request
July 24, 2020

DOT Calendars for Senior Staff Officials March 2017 – 2018

Department of Transportation
Agency Record
July 22, 2020

FOIA to DOT for Communications About Kentucky INFRA Grant

Department of Transportation
FOIA Request
July 17, 2020

FOIA to DOT for Communications About Boone County, Ky., INFRA Grant

Department of Transportation
FOIA Request
July 17, 2020

FOIA to DOT for Communications Between the Offices of Secretary Elaine Chao and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

Department of Transportation
FOIA Request
May 11, 2020

DOT Calendar Entries for Todd Inman from Jan. 2017 to July 2019

Department of Transportation
Agency Record
March 4, 2020

DOT Records Regarding Communications with Elaine Chao’s Family Company

Department of Transportation
Agency Record
February 21, 2020

Complaint: American Oversight v. DOT, DOE, and State – McConnell’s Influence Across the Federal Government

Department of Energy, Department of State, Department of Transportation
Litigation
January 6, 2020

DOT Senior Political Appointee Calendars

Department of Transportation
Agency Record
December 9, 2019

DOT Communications with Majority Leader McConnell’s Office

Department of Transportation
Agency Record
November 8, 2019

FOIA to DOT for Communications with Mitch McConnell’s Senate Campaign

Department of Transportation
FOIA Request
October 9, 2019

FOIA to Treasury and OFAC Seeking Communications with Senator McConnell and Secretary Chao

Department of the Treasury
FOIA Request
June 26, 2019

FOIA to DOT Seeking Ethics Documents Related to Secretary Chao

Department of Transportation
FOIA Request
June 26, 2019

FOIA to DOT Seeking Screening Documents Related to Secretary Chao and Vulcan Materials Company

Department of Transportation
FOIA Request
June 26, 2019

FOIA to DOT Seeking Secretary Chao’s Communications with Ethics Officials Regarding Vulcan Materials Company

Department of Transportation
FOIA Request
June 26, 2019

FOIA to DOT Requesting Communications with Vulcan Materials Company

Department of Transportation
FOIA Request
June 26, 2019

FOIA to DOT Requesting Telephone Call Logs for Top Officials

Department of Transportation
FOIA Request
June 17, 2019

Complaint: American Oversight v. DOT – Chao/McConnell Communications

Department of Transportation
Litigation
June 10, 2019

FOIA to DOT Seeking Elaine Chao’s Photos with the Foremost Group

Department of Transportation
FOIA Request
June 10, 2019

Complaint: Restore Public Trust v. DOT – Foremost Group Communications

Department of Transportation
Litigation
March 4, 2019

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao Calendars February 2017 – March 2018

Department of Transportation
Agency Record
October 17, 2018

FOIA to DOT Seeking Updated Calendars for Senior Staff Officials

Department of Transportation
FOIA Request
May 31, 2018

Complaint: American Oversight v. DOT – DOT and McConnell Communications

Department of Transportation
Litigation