The Department of Transportation watchdog asked the Justice Department to criminally investigate Elaine Chao late last year over concerns that she misused her office when she was President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Transportation but was rejected, according to a report released Wednesday.
The report said the Justice Department’s criminal and public integrity divisions refused in December to take the case for criminal prosecution after the inspector general discovered that Chao used his staff and office for personal duties and to promote a business of I send property of Chao’s father and sisters. in an apparent violation of federal ethical rules. That company does extensive business with China.
“A formal investigation into possible abuses of the office was warranted,” Assistant Inspector General Mitch Behm wrote in a letter to lawmakers.
Chao, the wife of Kentucky Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, resigned from her job earlier this year in the final weeks of the Trump administration, citing her disapproval of the Jan.6 uprising on Capitol Hill by supporters. of Trump.
Chao has denied wrongdoing. In the report released Wednesday, he did not specifically respond to the allegations, but provided a September 2020 memo that argued that promoting his family was an appropriate part of his official duties in the department.
“Asian audiences welcome and respond positively to the secretary’s actions that include her father in activities when appropriate,” said that memo.
The watchdog report cited several cases that raised ethical concerns. In one, Chao instructed designated politicians in the department 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 made extensive plans for an official trip to China in November 2017, before canceling it, which would have included stops at places that had received support from his family’s New York-based business, Foremost Group. According to emails from the department, Chao ordered his staff to include his family members at official events and high-level meetings during the trip.
“Above all, let’s keep (the Secretary) happy,” one of the department’s employees wrote to another staff member regarding Chao’s father. “If Dr. Chao is happy, then we should fly with a feather in our hat.”
The report found that Chao also ordered 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 in a store for his father.
The IG report said Justice Department officials ultimately refused to undertake a criminal review, saying “there may be ethical and / or administrative issues,” but there is no evidence to support possible criminal charges.
As a result, the inspector general’s office said in the report that it was now closing its investigation “due to a lack of fiscal interest” from the Justice Department.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, chairman of the House transportation committee, who requested the investigation, expressed disappointment that the review was not completed and was released while Chao was still in office.
“Public servants, especially those responsible for leading tens of thousands of other public servants, must know that they serve the public and not the private business interests of their family,” he said.