DOJ Declined to Investigate Into Trump Transportation Secretary Chao: Report

DOJ Declined to Investigate Into Trump Transportation Secretary Chao: Report
Then-Secretary of the Department of Transportation Elaine Chao speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference 2020 (CPAC) hosted by the American Conservative Union in National Harbor, Md., on Feb. 28, 2020. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)
Isabel van Brugen

The Department of Justice (DOJ) declined to investigate former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao after it received a case referral from the Transportation Department’s internal watchdog that faulted her for four potential kinds of ethics violations, according to documents released this week.

The Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Office of Inspector General (OIG) report (pdf), which was made public by House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Transportation Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) on March 3, reviewed allegations of potential misuse of office.

Chao, who is married to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), served as secretary of transportation during most of the Trump administration, before resigning on Jan. 7. She reportedly has deep ties to China through her family’s shipping business, the Foremost Group; the business was founded by her father, James S. C. Chao, and its current chief executive is Chao’s sister.

The OIG’s probe into Chao was requested by lawmakers in 2019 over concerns that she abused her position. Chao has denied wrongdoing.

The watchdog didn’t find evidence to support some allegations against the former transportation secretary, such as accusations that the DOT steered large sums of grant money to Kentucky—the state represented by her husband.

The report, however, concluded that she used her position to further her family’s interests. It included allegations that Chao directed staff to research or purchase personal items for her online using her personal credit card, or performed other personal errands for her or her father.

It also confirmed that Chao made extensive plans to include family members in events during a planned, but later canceled, official trip to China in November 2017 that included intended stops at schools that received support from her family’s business.

The watchdog found that Chao had tasked political appointees to contact Homeland Security officials on behalf of a foreign student who was the recipient of Chao family philanthropy, and that DOT staff “provided various media and public affairs support” to Chao’s father in 2017 and 2018, including facilitating the booking of a private Amtrak car for Chao’s father and guests to travel to Washington from New York for a DOT event.

During the final weeks of the Trump administration, the OIG referred its findings to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia and the DOJ—both of which declined to open criminal investigations.

In a statement, DeFazio said he was “disappointed” in the decision.

“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,” he said.

Maloney said: “The DOT Inspector General’s report, in addition to documents we obtained, demonstrate that Secretary Chao used her official position and taxpayer resources for the benefit of herself and her family.

“Secretary Chao’s flagrant abuse of her office provides further evidence that additional ethics and transparency reforms are needed.”

The DOJ didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment by The Epoch Times.

Republicans have said that the report exonerates Chao.

“Democrats should abandon their unproductive and divisive obsession with attacking Trump administration officials and instead focus on doing work that actually benefits the American people,” said Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.).

“This report exonerates the secretary from baseless accusations and closes the book on an election-year effort to impugn her history-making career as the first Asian American woman appointed to a president’s Cabinet and her outstanding record as the longest-tenured Cabinet member since World War II,” a spokesperson for Chao said in a statement.

Reuters contributed to this report.