The Transportation Department’s Inspector General made public on Wednesday a report that cites repeated examples of former Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao allegedly using her staff and her office to help benefit her family and their business operations and revealed that staff members at the agency had raised ethics concerns.
Elaine Chao is Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) wife, who notably resigned the day after the Capitol riot.
The inspector general’s investigation detailed a series of instances in which Elaine Chao reportedly directed her staff to spend federal government time and resources to help with matters related to a family shipping company and her father.
“A formal investigation into potential misuses of position was warranted,” Mitch Behm, the department’s deputy inspector general, said on Tuesday in a letter to House lawmakers, accompanying a 44-page report detailing the investigation and the findings of wrongdoing.
The report indicated “Chao had used her staff to make extensive arrangements in 2017 for the planned trip to China, which was canceled just before her planned departure after ethics concerns were raised.”
The Chao family company, Foremost Group, was responsible as of 2019 for a large portion of orders at one of China’s biggest state-funded shipyards and has secured long-term charters with a Chinese state-owned steelmaker, Breitbart News found. Foremost’s ships carry bulk cargo such as iron ore and coal, focusing on shipping those commodities to China.
The investigation noted the trip was scheduled to include stops at locations in China that received financial support from her family’s company and also a meeting with “top leaders” in China that was scheduled to include her father and sister but not other members of the Transportation Department staff.
The investigators also found that Chao repeatedly asked agency staff members to help “do chores for her father, including editing her father’s Wikipedia page, promoting his Chinese-language biography,” and directing two staff members from the transportation secretary’s office to send a copy of her father’s book “to a well-known CEO of a major U.S. corporation” to ask if he would write a foreword for the book.
Apparently, staff members for Elaine Chao’s office were assigned in 2017 to check with the Department of Homeland Security on “the status of a work permit application for a foreign student studying in the U.S. who had received a scholarship from a Chao family foundation,” the report said.
The student, according to the report, had interviewed Elaine Chao’s father, James Chao, at the New York headquarters of the family’s shipping company in order to share James Chao’s experience “with Chinese millennials.”
Transportation Department staff members were given the job of arranging details for James Chao’s trip to China in October 2017, including asking, through the State Department, for China’s transport ministry to arrange for two cars for the six-person delegation, which included Chao’s younger sister, Angela Chao, who had succeeded their father as head of the family shipping company, and Angela Chao’s husband, the venture capitalist Jim Breyer.
Elaine Chao’s trip to China that year was abruptly canceled after news organizations wondered about the makeup of Elaine Chao’s delegation, the New York Times wrote.
Breitbart News reported in 2019 that Chao and her husband, Mitch McConnell, have directly benefited from the Chao family business. As Breitbart News senior contributor Peter Schweizer recounts in his book Secret Empires, Chao’s father — Mitch McConnell’s father-in-law — gave the Washington power couple a “gift” (the term used on McConnell’s financial disclosure forms to report this transaction) of between $5 to $25 million in 2008.
According to the New York Post, the “gift” had a major impact on the couple’s net worth: “In 2004, current Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his wife, current U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, had an average net worth of $3.1 million. Ten years later, that number had increased to somewhere between $9.2 million and $36.5 million.”
As New York magazine noted, “in many of the videos James Chao brags about his daughter’s government work and contacts. In one video he describes talking with Trump on Air Force One. ‘The president spent several minutes with me,’ he said. ‘We were talking about business.’”