Donald Trump’s Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao, was criminally referred to the Justice Department by the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General’s office for using her office for personal gain, a new report released this week reveals. According to the 2021 report, there were four instances where the wife of then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) raised ethics concerns, including using Dept. of Transportation resources and staff for personal use. Chao even solicited political appointees to contact the Department of Homeland Security to help a Chinese student whose visa was about to expire. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy, Finch Fulton, sent an email to DHS officials saying:
“Just tried to call you. I now understand more about the problem. It’s not crazy sensitive, but it is for the Secretary. There is [an individual] who is a  School Scholar and a recipient of the Chao Family [philanthropy]. [They are] caught in a hard place with [their] student visa about to expire and [their] Employment Authorization Document [EAD] yet to be approved. [They] already [have] a job lined up, [so they] just [need] this to go through the system.”
Another red flag for the Office of the Inspector General was an official government trip to the annual U.S.-China Transportation Forum. Chao wanted her father, Dr. James S.C. Chao, and other family members to accompany her, and attend official meetings. Chao received criticism for including stops in unofficial cities and meeting with those who had close ties to her family’s business. Chao also used staff members to help promote her father’s biography, update his Wikipedia page, and check on maintenance issues at one of Dr. Chao’s stores.
The investigation into Secretary Chao was requested by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and by Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), Chair of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, who called Chao’s misuse of her position a “flagrant abuse of office.” A big cause of concern was the $127 million in infrastructure grants her home state of Kentucky received, as well as Chao’s financial interest in federal grant recipient Vulcan Materials. Prior to being appointed as Secretary of Transportation, Chao sat on the company’s board and held Vulcan stock.
While the Transportation Department’s Office of the Inspector General didn’t find enough evidence to warrant further investigation, the areas of concern were forwarded to the Justice Department. Deputy Inspector General Mitch Behm wrote, “A formal investigation into potential misuses of position was warranted.”
Trump’s Department of Justice declined to investigate, citing possible “ethical,” but not criminal issues. Rep. DeFazio shared his disappointment in the Justice Department’s refusal to hold Chao accountable, saying “Public servants, especially those responsible for leading tens of thousands of other public servants, must know that they serve the public and not their family’s private commercial interests.”
Former Secretary Chao resigned her position on Jan. 7, 2021 – one day after Trump’s attempt to overthrow the government, saying she was troubled “in a way that I simply cannot set aside.”
Somehow it’s not hard to imagine that many people feel the same way about Elaine Chao’s abuse of her office.
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