Meet the McConnells: Power & the Money
Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao attempted to schedule meetings between members of her family’s shipping business and Chinese government officials during a planned trip to China that was ultimately cancelled amid ethics concerns.
According to an investigation by The New York Times, Chao requested in October 2017 that federal officials make travel arrangements for at least one of her relatives to China. She also asked for her family members to be included in meetings with government officials.
David Rank, an official in the State Department, told the Times that Chao’s request was “alarmingly inappropriate.” Rank was previously the acting U.S. ambassador to China but resigned in 2017 after President Donald Trump decided to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.
Another department official, who remained anonymous, told the newspaper that Chao’s family and their business interests were “potentially affected by meetings.”
Her family’s business, the Foremost Group, is a shipping, trading and finance company. Chao has no formal affiliation with the company but she has been gifted millions of dollars from her father, who ran the company until last year, according to the Times. Chao is married to Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, whose re-election campaigns have also benefited from large monetary donations from the Chao family.
The requested trip was eventually dropped by the Transportation Department, though the agency did not state a reason for the cancellation. Before the trip was cancelled, department officials sent hundreds of emails planning the visit.
Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation Hon. Elaine L. Chao speaks onstage during the 2018 Concordia Annual Summit – Day 1 at Grand Hyatt New York on September 24, 2018 in New York City. A recent report from the New York Times found that Chao tried to set up a meeting between her relatives and Chinese officials, but the trip was cancelled amid ethics concern.
Marilyn Glynn, a former acting chief at the Office of Government Ethics, told the Times that Chao should recuse herself.
Chao declined to be interviewed, but the Transportation Department provided a written statement from the secretary that read: “My family are patriotic Americans who have led purpose-driven lives and contributed much to this country. They embody the American dream, and my parents inspired all their daughters to give back to this country we love.”
Freshman Democrat Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted about the Times investigation on Monday, writing that it seems like Chao “has been caught trying to use her position to enrich her family’s shipping company. Her husband has lots of sway in US laws, too: Mitch McConnell. At this point it might be easier to ask where in this admin there *isn’t* corruption.”
The Times investigation comes just a week after the Wall Street Journal reported that Chao still owned shares in a construction company that she vowed to divest from when she joined the Trump administration. According to the report, her holdings in the company have gained more than $40,000 in value over the past year.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has held onto shares of construction firm Vulcan Materials that have increased in value by over $40,000 in the year since she promised to divest from the company, a report from The Wall Street Journal revealed on Tuesday.
A 2017 ethics agreement from Chao ahead of her Cabinet appointment said she would cash out her vested deferred stock from Vulcan, on whose board she was serving, in April 2018. The Journal reported that, despite this arrangement, Chao has decided to retain her shares in Vulcan while serving as President Trump’s transportation secretary.
Vulcan’s rising share price over the last year means Chao’s stock is now worth over $40,000 more than it was in April last year.
The agreement also specified that Chao would “not participate personally and substantially” in any decision that could impact Vulcan’s bottom line.
Vulcan is the nation’s largest provider of construction aggregates, which are rudimentary materials used in infrastructure projects such as crushed stone, sand and gravel, according to the company’s website.
“It is unfortunate that members of the news media have attempted to substitute their opinions for the decisions of senior career ethics officials of the department, who have determined there is no conflict of interest as the Secretary remains disqualified from matters directly involving the company mentioned,” a Department of Transportation spokesperson told Newsweek. “In her ethics agreement, the Secretary agreed to resign from her Board position and not participate in matters with a direct and predictable impact on Vulcan Materials, which she has followed.”
The agreement is “being clarified” to accommodate Chao’s stock holdings, the DOT told the Journal.