Last spring, then-President Trump’s drastic changes to the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General raised significant questions around the integrity of the office and its ability to conduct fair and unbiased investigations into misconduct by officials like then-current Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. CREW is suing DOT, the DOT Office of Inspector General, and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) for records on Trump’s reshuffling of DOT OIG leadership to put political appointees in charge.
In May, Trump shocked watchdogs when he ousted Acting DOT IG Mitchell Behm who had been investigating Chao for alleged political favoritism towards her husband, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, and his constituents. McConnell happened to be up for re-election in November 2020.
But the carnage did not stop there. Trump’s replacements for Behm were just as unsettling. He announced he would assign Howard “Skip” Elliott, a political appointee who retained his position as Administrator of the PHMSA, to replace Behm as acting IG, and intended to nominate a Department of Justice senior trial counsel, Eric Soskin, to serve as the permanent IG. These decisions appeared markedly political in nature, raising questions of whether Trump was replacing leadership of the DOT OIG in order to benefit key political allies, specifically Chao and McConnell. IGs are intended to be apolitical and independent, and it is extremely unusual for them to be selected from among an administration’s political appointees.
CREW’s lawsuit follows CREW’s submission of three FOIA requests on May 18, 2020 to DOT, DOT OIG, and PHMSA on Elliott’s appointment to the DOT Acting IG position, including any recommendations from PHMSA and the current DOT OIG, communications from Chao or her office, and records from the DOT General Counsel on ethics around Elliott’s dual role. CREW received partial records from DOT OIG but not from either DOT or PHMSA.
Recent reports on Chao released from the Trump-appointed DOT OIG have indicated no “irregular” findings on Chao’s treatment of Kentucky constituents, though it did fault Chao for promoting her family businesses and referred her to DOJ for possible prosecution. With fundamental questions around the integrity of the DOT OIG leadership that Trump installed left unanswered, there is good reason for skepticism about whether Chao would be held fully accountable by Trump political appointees installed as IGs. In December, the DOJ decided not to bring charges against Chao for her promotion of her family business, and these records could bring renewed urgency for DOJ to reconsider OIG’s recommendation to consider criminal charges against Chao. The public deserves to know more about Trump’s shuffling of DOT OIG leadership, especially as it continues to investigate abuses that occurred during the Trump administration.
Header photo by James F. X. O’Gara, available under a Creative Commons license.
March 8, 2021