Former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao misused her office to support her family’s international shipping business, according to a new report released by the agency’s inspector general on Wednesday — an issue highlighted in records American Oversight previously obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests and litigation.
The internal watchdog found evidence that Chao had used government resources for personal errands and to promote her family’s work. It specifically cited concerns about Chao providing her father with Transportation Department media support, using agency resources and staff for personal tasks, and including family members and personal events in the schedule for a planned — but later canceled — 2017 trip to China. The inspector general referred these issues to the Department of Justice during the final days of the Trump administration, but DOJ did not pursue criminal charges.
Through our investigation into Chao’s tenure in office, American Oversight previously obtained her calendars, which revealed a number of instances in which agency resources were used to promote Foremost Group, her family’s business that has deep ties to the Chinese government. Among them was a March 29, 2017, entry for a private photo shoot at the Transportation Department, where Chao and her father, Dr. James Chao, posed with his company’s employees. The entry featured a list of photographs to be taken, including “Secretary Chao, Dr. Chao with Foremost Group” and “another photo with Foremost employee’s family.”
Another calendar entry from September 2017 noted that Chao introduced her father at an awards ceremony at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, where he was presented with the academy’s “Maritime Person of the Year” award.
According to the IG report, department staff also provided Chao’s father with public affairs support in 2017 and 2018, including being directed to ask an unnamed prominent CEO and several academic leaders to write a foreword for his biography. Staff was also involved in developing and executing an outreach strategy for another book that included a chapter profiling him, and were even tasked with editing his Wikipedia page. The secretary’s staff also “actively maintained a list of all of Dr. Chao’s awards,” such as the award mentioned above that appeared in calendars obtained by American Oversight.
The IG report also extensively covers the canceled 2017 China trip, which raised ethics concerns among officials at the Transportation and State Departments and spurred a New York Times investigation and the internal investigation. That Times report on the trip and other potential conflicts of interest also featured an email exchange uncovered by American Oversight showing Chao’s aides worked with the office of her husband, Sen. Mitch McConnell, to arrange an “off limits” VIP tour of the U.S. Capitol for a delegation of Chinese Communist Party officials from the same region as her mother.
American Oversight previously obtained a number of records indicating that Chao’s office had prioritized requests from Kentucky, McConnell’s home state. In December, McConnell had pushed to confirm Eric Soskin as the Transportation inspector general at the same time that the office was investigating Chao.
Chao resigned on Jan. 7, citing the mob attack on the Capitol. The IG report shows that even after the Trump administration has ended, key information is still needed to hold officials accountable.
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