Elaine Chao reportedly helped secure millions of dollars in federal money requested by her husband, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, for his home state of Kentucky by using her official capacity as secretary of the Department of Transportation, a move that ethics officials have lambasted and even consider impeachable.
Around the time of his 2020 reelection campaign announcement in April and in the run-up to it, McConnell was able to get at least $78 million in federal funds approved for local projects, in large part thanks to a role created for one of Chao’s aides, who then operated as an intermediary between her office and that of McConnell, according to Politico.
The revelations have raised conflicts of interest concerns among ethics experts, with at least one going so far as to suggest Chao should be removed from office.
“This is the sort of thing that should lead to the impeachment of a corrupt official — that is, if her corrupt husband weren’t in a position to block that impeachment,” Walter Shaub said on Twitter. Currently a senior adviser for the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), Shaub served as the director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics under Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
“We are now a full-fledged banana republic,” he continued. “We have nothing to teach the rest of the world except what not to be.
Also a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, McConnell defended his ability to secure the tens of millions of dollars in federal funding for various community projects, including parks and conference centers, according to Politico.
“Every single day, Kentuckians from across the Commonwealth contact me with their concerns,” McConnell told Politico in a statement via email. “As Senate Majority Leader and a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, I am able to ensure that these issues — both large and small — are part of the national discussion. Kentucky continues to punch above its weight in Washington, and I am proud to be a strong voice for my constituents in the Senate.”
The information about the project funding and communications between McConnell’s and Chao’s offices were detailed in emails obtained by the watchdog group American Oversight, under the Freedom of Information Act, which were then provided to Politico.
A Transportation Department spokesperson denied there was any special treatment given to Kentucky, telling Politico there is a stringent and competitive review process that involves “cost-benefit and project readiness review.”
John Hudak of the Brookings Institution labeled the potential conflicts of interest as the sort of “swamp behavior” people often associate with Washington.
“There’s nothing illegal about her steering those funds to her husband’s home state, and her home state, as long as things are aboveboard,” Hudak told Politico. “The question though is, how do you deal with conflicts of interests? And this is a clear conflict. … Even if it’s not legally so, these are political offices, so the optics of this are important. In a business setting, you would put firewalls up to prevent those types of bad optics.”