The Transportation Department’s watchdog asked the Justice Department to criminally investigate Elaine Chao late last year after it determined she had misused her office when she was transportation secretary under President Donald Trump but was rebuffed, according to a report released Wednesday.
The report said the Justice Department’s criminal and public integrity divisions declined in December to take up the case for criminal prosecution following the inspector general’s findings that Chao inappropriately used her staff and office for personal tasks and to promote a shipping business owned by Chao’s father and sisters. That company does extensive business with China.
“A formal investigation into potential misuses of position was warranted,” deputy inspector general Mitch Behm wrote in a letter to lawmakers.
Chao, the wife of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, stepped down from her job early this year in the last weeks of the Trump administration, citing her disapproval over the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol by Trump’s supporters.
Chao has denied wrongdoing. In the report released Wednesday, she did not specifically respond to allegations, instead providing a September 2020 memo that argued promoting her family was an appropriate part of her official duties at the department.
“Asian audiences welcome and respond positively to actions by the secretary that include her father in activities when appropriate,” that memo said.
The watchdog report cited several instances that raised ethical concerns. In one, Chao instructed political appointees in the department to contact the Homeland Security Department to check personally on the status of a work permit application for a student who was a recipient of her family’s philanthropic foundation.
Chao also made extensive plans for an official trip to China in November 2017 — before she canceled it — that would have included stops at places that had received support from her family’s business, the New York-based Foremost Group. According to department emails, Chao directed her staff to include her relatives in the 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 staffer regarding Chao’s father. “If Dr. Chao is happy, then we should be flying with a feather in our hat.”
The report found that Chao also directed the department’s public affairs staff to assist her father in the marketing of his personal biography and to edit his Wikipedia page, and used staff to check on repairs of an item at a store for her father.