The Department of Transportation watchdog called on the Department of Justice to criminally investigate Elaine Chao late last year over concerns that she had abused her office while she was transportation secretary under President Donald Trump, but had been rejected, according to a report released Wednesday.
The report says the Criminal and Public Integrity Divisions of the Justice Ministry refused in December to initiate criminal proceedings following the Inspector General’s findings that Chao was using his staff and office for personal tasks. and to promote a shipping company owned by Chao’s father and sisters, in apparent violation of federal ethics rules. This company does significant business with China.
“A formal investigation into possible postings was warranted,” Deputy Inspector General Mitch Behm wrote in a letter to lawmakers.
Chao, the wife of Kentucky’s Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, resigned her post earlier this year in the final weeks of the Trump administration, citing her disapproval of the Jan.6 insurgency on Capitol Hill by Trump supporters.
Chao denied the wrongdoing. In the report released on Wednesday, she did not specifically respond to the allegations, but instead provided a September 2020 memo claiming that promoting her family was part of her official duties at the ministry.
“The Asian public welcomes and reacts positively to the actions of the secretary who include her father in the activities where appropriate,” said the note.
The monitoring report cited several examples which raised ethical concerns. In one, Chao asked the department’s political appointees to contact the Department of Homeland Security to personally verify the status of a work permit application for a student who was a beneficiary of his family’s philanthropic foundation.
Chao also extensively planned an official trip to China in November 2017 – before canceling it – which would have included stops at places that had received support from the family business, the New York-based Foremost Group. According to emails from the department, Chao asked his staff to include relatives in official events and high profile meetings during the trip.
“Above all, let’s keep (the secretary) happy,” one of the department employees wrote to another staff member about Chao’s father. “If Dr. Chao is happy, then we should fly with a feather in our hat.”
The report found that Chao also asked the department’s public affairs staff to help his father market his personal biography and edit his Wikipedia page, and used the staff to verify repairs to an item at a store for his father.
The IG report says Justice Ministry officials ultimately refused to conduct a criminal review, claiming there “could be ethical and / or administrative issues”, but no evidence to support it. ‘possible criminal charges.
As a result, the inspector general’s office said in the report that it was now closing its investigation “due to lack of interest in prosecution” on the part of the justice ministry.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, chairman of the House transportation committee, who requested the investigation, expressed disappointment that the review was not completed and released while Chao was still in office.
“Public servants, especially those charged with leading tens of thousands of other public servants, need to know that they are serving the public and not the private business interests of their families,” he said.