The Transportation Department’s inspector general asked the Justice Department in December to consider a criminal probe into then-Secretary Elaine Chao over her alleged misuse of office, documents made public Wednesday said, including her alleged use of staff for personal tasks like sending Christmas ornaments to family.
The Justice Department and the US Attorney’s Office in Washington, however, declined to pursue the case in the final weeks of the Trump administration, stating there “may be ethical and/or administrative issues to address but there is not predication to open a criminal investigation,” according to Transportation Department Deputy Inspector General Mitch Behm’s 38-page report detailing his office’s extensive ethics concerns surrounding Chao’s conduct.
“We concluded that a formal investigation into potential misuses of position was warranted,” Behm wrote in a letter accompanying the report.
The probe had been requested by the Democratic leadership of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, which asked the IG’s office to investigate Chao’s “possible conflicts of interest,” including various reports that her office was giving “preferential treatment to Kentucky.” Behm wrote that his preliminary review did not find “a sufficient basis” to formally investigate those claims but an investigation into potential misuse of office was warranted.
Chao, who is married to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, had used agency staff for tasks that “appear to be personal in nature,” the report stated, citing its investigation.
This included tasking staff with editing her father’s Wikipedia page and sending a copy of his book “to a well-known CEO of a major U.S. corporation,” the inspector general’s report said, citing a review of emails and interviews with department staffers.
Investigators said that, in one instance, Chao allegedly directed political appointees on her staff to reach out to the Department of Homeland Security regarding a work permit application for a student “who was a recipient of Chao family’s philanthropy,” the report stated. Inspector general investigators said Chao allegedly made plans to include family members during a planned work trip to China that was ultimately canceled, the report added.
The inspector general report said Chao declined to respond to questions as part of the investigation, but DOT General Counsel Steven Bradbury provided a memo in September that emphasized the cultural value of supporting family.
“Anyone familiar with Asian culture knows it is a core value in Asian communities to express honor and filial respect toward one’s parents, and this ingrained value of love, respect, and filial piety always takes precedence over self-promotion and self-aggrandizement. … As the eldest daughter, she is expected to assume a leadership role in family occasions that honor her father and her late mother,” the memo argued.
A spokesperson for Chao said the Justice Department’s decision not to pursue the case “exonerates” Chao.
“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,” the spokesperson for Chao told CNN.
A spokesperson for McConnell declined to comment.
Chao faced swift backlash from Democrats on Wednesday evening after the inspector general report became public.
“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,” House Oversight Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat, said in a statement.
That message was echoed by Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat who’s the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who said in a statement: “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.”
Republican House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee ranking member Sam Graves of Missouri, however, defended Chao’s “tireless work” in a statement that said her tenure would not be “diminished” by the investigation.
Chao had resigned from her role in January following the US Capitol insurrection, writing at the time that she was “deeply troubled” by the “entirely avoidable” incident.