As scrutiny of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao’s personal finances and her family’s shipping company grows, American Oversight has uncovered documents bolstering the February report on her office’s coordination with the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, her husband.
In just the past week, Chao has been the subject of both a Politico report about her failure to divest from stock she owned as well as a New York Times exposé about the Chinese connections of her family’s shipping company. In February, based on documents obtained by American Oversight through Freedom of Information Act litigation, Politico reported on the preferential handling of requests from politicians and business leaders of her and McConnell’s home state of Kentucky. The Transportation Department this week provided more records that point to further examples of such privileged treatment.
As reported in February, Transportation Department official Todd Inman had in early 2017 instructed staff in McConnell’s office to notify him directly of Kentucky-specific requests “so we can monitor or follow up as necessary.”
In the new set of documents from the Transportation Department is another early 2017 email from Inman about this separate track for McConnell’s office. In the message, Inman told a staffer that certain requests from McConnell’s state director, Terry Carmack, could “bypass” the schedulers and be forwarded directly to Chao.
That same month, Inman emailed McConnell staffer Stefanie Muchow to ask for advice on how to approach his new position as director of operations at the department, saying that he imagines that Chao modeled his position “along the same lines as what you do for the leader.”
In March 2017, Carmack forwarded Inman a request from a Kentucky bank for Chao to speak at an event. “From an employee at Luther Deaton’s bank,” Carmack wrote, referring to a bank executive who had donated to McConnell’s Senate campaign. Carmack also added, “But I don’t think he is involved or cares,” giving an impression that the preferences of Deaton — who gave McConnell’s campaign a further $2,700 a couple of weeks later — may have factored into the secretary’s response had he been personally interested in having her speak. (Chao does not appear to have attended the event.)
In September of that year, a new counsel in McConnell’s office emailed Inman to tell him that she had just been in Kentucky and that his “name came up.” “Everyone is very appreciative of the great work you are doing up here,” she added.”
Inman thanks her, and mentions that Neil Chatterjee, the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, had met with Chao the day before. Chatterjee had served as McConnell’s energy adviser prior to joining FERC.
Previous email and calendar records obtained by American Oversight show at least ten meetings that Chao had with Kentucky officials and business leaders following requests from McConnell’s office.
On Monday, American Oversight filed a new lawsuit to uncover additional records that could shed light on coordination between the Department of Transportation and McConnell’s office.
The lawsuit seeks copies of Inman’s calendars from the start of the Trump administration through early 2019. Inman initially worked on coordinating Chao’s schedule, but in January, he was promoted to chief of staff, overseeing daily operations for the entire Transportation Department. In the Politico and Times reports, as well as in the documents uncovered by American Oversight’s earlier litigation, Inman has emerged as a key link between Chao’s office and McConnell’s staff. Inman’s resume, obtained by American Oversight in 2017, shows that he previously worked as a campaign aide to McConnell.
American Oversight’s new lawsuit also seeks copies of communications between McConnell’s office and Transportation Department officials as well as recent calendars for Chao and other senior aides.