Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao is facing public and Congressional scrutiny for multiple conflicts of interest. CREW requested records to see what oversight actions, if any, the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) and Department of Transportation (DOT) have taken with respect to Secretary Chao. Specifically, CREW requested records between OGE and the House Committee on Oversight and Reform as well as the DOT and a letter filed with OGE by the Chair of the Oversight Committee Elijah Cummings.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Chao failed to divest from Vulcan Materials Co., an asphalt company that relies on DOT funds, as required by her original ethics agreement. Over two years into her term as Secretary, she cashed out $400,000 of shares in the company. Secretary Chao’s failure to live up to the terms of her original ethics agreement raise conflict of interest concerns.
Another possible instance of ethical impropriety stems from her relationship with the Foremost Group, which is owned by her family. The New York Times reported that the group, run by her father until last year, donated millions of dollars in gifts to both Chao and her husband Senator Mitch McConnell. Chao has also appeared in promotional events with her father in China, raising questions of ethics and industry influence.
Finally, Politico reported that Chao has given 1 out of 4 meetings with local officials to Kentucky constituents, who make up just 1.3% of the US population. Kentucky is the state that her husband, Mitch McConnell is the Senator of. Constituents and officials of other states complained about her lack of availability. This discrepancy in treatment raises questions about unethical favoritism.
In response to these multiple allegations, the Oversight Committee launched an investigation in September into Chao’s multiple conflicts of interest. On September 16, 2019, Cummings sent a letter to the OGE on their findings.
The requested records would contribute to greater public understanding of Chao’s ethics challenges and the steps the DOT and OGE may have taken to address them. Given the pattern of disregard for ethics laws that this administration has shown, it is important to know whether ethics officials are holding the administration to account.