The Slatest

Elaine Chao Under Investigation for Alleged Nepotism

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao participates in a celebration of 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion Joey Logano on the South Lawn of the White House April 30, 2019 in Washington, D.C.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao at the White House on April 30 in Washington, D.C.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

House Democrats have finally noticed the lengthy and long-standing allegations that Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao may be abusing her office. On Monday, the House Oversight Committee sent a letter to Chao requesting a series of documents related to accusations that she may have used her office to try to benefit her family’s shipping company.

“The Committee is investigating several allegations relating to your service as Secretary of Transportation, including troubling questions about whether you are using your office to benefit yourself or your family,” read the letter from the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, and the chairman of the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi.

Until now, Chao’s record seemed to have been lost in the swirl of other Trump administration scandals. According to the Times, a spokeswoman for the Oversight Committee described the request as the “initial inquiry to Secretary Chao about these specific issues.”

The issues that the House is starting to look at now have been known for months, thanks to a New York Times exposé in June and a Wall Street Journal report in May. The Journal reporting surrounded Chao’s failure to fulfill a promise to divest in a timely fashion from a crushed stone, sand, and gravel company that worked in the transportation sector and saw its stock price rise after she took over as secretary. The Times reporting had to do with Chao’s family’s shipping company, Foremost Group, and reports that Chao has sought to bolster the company’s position in China through official actions, such as attempts to include members of the company in state visits and appearances alongside family members in Chinese state media.

The letter includes 18 different document and information requests pertaining to Chao’s financial disclosure regarding her shares and divestment in Vulcan Materials Company, as well as her communications involving the Foremost Group. The Times reported that since taking office Chao had made at least a dozen Chinese media appearances alongside her father, the founder of Foremost Group, including one in which he boasted about access to President Donald Trump and time spent on Air Force One. The publication also reported that Chao had attempted to bring family members who work at Foremost on official state visits to China to meet with Chinese officials, and that she had done this at least once already in 2008 during a previous stint as labor secretary.

The letter further requests a list of and documentation surrounding all media appearances alongside family members since Chao entered office; documents covering any travel Chao’s family members may have taken in government-owned vehicles; any communications between her or DOT employees and Foremost employees; a list of enforcement actions for cargo preference violations against Foremost competitors; as well as a description of personal email communications between herself and family members or Foremost Group employees regarding official DOT business or travel.

“We look forward to responding to the committee’s request,” the Department of Transportation said in a statement on Monday. The statement further suggested that the media reporting was illegitimate because it was “stale.” (Last week, Slate resurfaced some of the reporting from earlier this summer as part of a new series on ongoing Cabinet-level corruption.)

“Media attacks targeting the secretary’s family are stale and only attempt to undermine her long career of public service,” the statement read.

The document request could be the first step in a lengthy investigation process that could include hearings into whether secretary has used her position to benefit her family company. After Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and Attorney General William Barr failed to respond to a document request regarding allegations that Ross and the Department of Justice misled Congress about a failed attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, Ross and Barr were ultimately subpoenaed, and later held in contempt of Congress for failing to comply with the subpoenas. If Chao doesn’t comply with this request, the Oversight Committee could eventually take the same route.

The committee’s request does not even address accusations in two other reports from Politico and Yahoo News this summer that Chao had used her various perches to benefit her husband’s political career.

Separately from the oversight committee’s new investigation, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, chair of the House Marine Transportation Subcommittee, in June said that he had been given the “green light to proceed with an inquiry” into Chao’s alleged “nepotism” benefiting her family’s business and efforts “to help her husband.”

Slate has reached out to Maloney’s office to see if that inquiry would be going ahead now that the oversight committee is investigating the family business half of the situation. We will update this post if we hear back.