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.
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.