The emails from McConnell’s workplace to Chao’s workers typically included particulars about initiatives that contributors wished to debate with the secretary, or to ask her for particular favors. A number of the officers who met with Chao had energetic grant functions earlier than the Division of Transportation by way of aggressive packages and the emails point out that the conferences typically concerned the change of details about grants and alternatives for the officers to plead their case instantly earlier than Chao.
After a gathering within the spring of this 12 months, the mayor of Owensboro, Kentucky, a McConnell stronghold that had earlier acquired $11.5 million in DOT funding, thanked Todd Inman, a former McConnell marketing campaign staffer working with Chao, for assembling “so many excessive degree staffers. . . [to] reply questions and provides recommendation on transit, roads and the political course of wanted to maneuver our initiatives alongside akin to I-165.
“Then, the icing on the cake, time with Secretary Chao herself. What a sort and beneficiant girl, to not point out extraordinarily good, a real public servant, and a terrific pal to OBKY,” wrote the Owensboro mayor, Tom Watson, in Might, 2019.
The truth that Chao’s calendar exhibits that one out of each 4 conferences with native officers was with Kentuckians is critical as a result of the division has lengthy maintained that it, and she or he, have proven no favoritism to the state represented by her husband, even whereas native officers from different states have complained about having bother attending to see her.
The conferences additionally forged mild on the moral challenges of getting a married couple as Transportation secretary and Senate majority chief. Federal ethics guidelines strictly prohibit any actions by authorities officers that profit them personally or their shut relations; McConnell and Chao’s political and private fortunes are inextricably tied, and his re-election marketing campaign often cites his capacity to ship federal dollars to his dwelling state.
“The wedding is the factor that underlies all of this,” mentioned Mel Dubnick, a professor of presidency ethics and accountability on the College of New Hampshire. House-state bias in federal authorities is a standard concern in federal grant-making, he mentioned, however Chao’s marriage to the nation’s strongest lawmaker makes the association nearly unprecedented.
McConnell – who, like many congressional leaders, has confronted complaints from constituents of devoting extra time to nationwide points than native considerations – factors to his position in acquiring funds for native Kentucky communities as proof that he’s not misplaced contact with of us again dwelling, and that his management publish furthers their pursuits.
In a current Morning Seek the advice of ballot, solely 36 % of Kentuckians authorised of his efficiency, the bottom of any senator going through re-election in 2020. However McConnell solutions his critics by citing his assist for President Donald Trump and his capacity to ship grants – a few of that are from the division his spouse leads.
“There are some distinct benefits to having me as the bulk chief of america Senate,” he mentioned on the August 2018, Fancy Farm picnic in western Kentucky. “I’m able to take particular care of Kentucky.”
Jesse Benton, who was McConnell’s marketing campaign supervisor for the majority of the 2014 race, mentioned the senator’s capacity to flex his energy in Washington resonates with Kentucky voters, even when he isn’t notably well-liked.
“I began off pondering we would have liked to do issues to. . . make individuals see what a heat man he’s,” mentioned Benton. “Folks didn’t care. What they wished to see was a McConnell who was highly effective, sturdy and placing Kentucky first, whether or not it means maintaining Kentucky in nationwide conversations, or whether or not he’s ensuring they take their fair proportion of federal program cash.”
Senate Majority Chief Mitch McConnell and Transportatio Secretary Elaine Chao’s political and private fortunes are inextricably tied, and McConnell’s re-election marketing campaign often cites his capacity to ship federal dollars to his dwelling state of Kentucky. | Getty Photographs
That apparently contains his capacity to assist constituents get conferences together with his spouse, who controls one of many richest sources of federal outlays. Chao and different Transportation officers declined by way of the division’s media workplace to be interviewed. In an emailed assertion, a DOT spokesperson mentioned, “The Workplace of the Secretary has an open-door coverage, and welcomes conferences from all state and native officers throughout the nation. Any suggestion on the contrary is just not primarily based in reality.”
The spokesperson added that “up to now week alone, the Division met with 28 state, native, and tribal delegations” however, when requested, declined to say what number of of these conferences, if any, the secretary herself had sat in on.
Some native officers, nevertheless, say they’ve discovered it almost unattainable to achieve Chao personally, even to debate the biggest initiatives within the nation.
“Ever since she got here in, it’s been very exhausting to determine easy methods to get time along with her,” mentioned Beth Osborne, government director of Transportation for America, a company which advises cities on transportation and concrete planning. “Originally of the administration we obtained a number of questions on what it takes to fulfill with the secretary. Folks don’t ask anymore. It’s like they’ve given up.”
Osborne, who was deputy after which appearing assistant secretary for transportation coverage below Transportation Secretaries Ray LaHood and Anthony Foxx within the Obama administration, famous that Chao’s mild schedule of conferences with state and native officers “stands in stark distinction” to these secretaries, who instructed aides to accommodate as many assembly requests as potential.
Moderately than ask to fulfill with Chao in Washington, Osborne mentioned, she usually recommends that native leaders invite the secretary to their city to see the venture for herself, in order that then when she has a grant utility in her arms she’ll keep in mind her private expertise with that venture. “And whereas I used to be giving that suggestion I saved listening to from of us, ‘Oh, she doesn’t settle for invites to such issues. She simply doesn’t try this.’ And I heard that repeatedly: ‘We supplied and we had been informed she simply doesn’t do journeys. That’s simply not her factor.’”
A DOT spokesman mentioned Chao has traveled to 31 states through the two-and-a-half years she’s been in workplace and meets with state and native officers on most of these journeys.
The DOT spokesman additionally defended Chao’s conferences with officers from Kentucky, saying it’s pure for her to fulfill with them “given her home-state ties — she’s a proud Kentuckian.”
Kentucky, nevertheless, is an adopted dwelling for Chao, who married McConnell in 1993, throughout his second time period within the Senate. She was raised in New York after having emigrated from Taiwan on the age of eight. A lot of her shut relations nonetheless stay in New York, and her household’s transport enterprise is predicated in New York Metropolis.
But officers from the New York and New Jersey space say they yearn for the type of consideration she offers to her husband’s constituents. Whereas officers from small cities in Kentucky obtained to sit down down with the secretary within the ninth-floor Lincoln convention room at division headquarters to debate riverfront initiatives and freeway enhancements, she has given the chilly shoulder to these advocating for one of many nation’s largest infrastructure initiatives: the restore and substitute of the bridges and tunnels connecting New York and New Jersey that collectively are referred to as Gateway.
“One can’t assist however suppose: Would we now have already damaged floor on Gateway if it had been situated in Kentucky, not New Jersey and New York?” Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) mentioned final June in reference to earlier POLITICO reporting on Chao’s favoritism towards Kentucky.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, mentioned he has had higher luck getting time with President Donald Trump than Chao.
“I’ve spoken to the president on a few events,” he mentioned at a roundtable on Gateway in Might. “As a basic matter, I’ve gotten a way of goodwill in these conversations from him, however the route has been to take it up with Secretary Chao. I’ve tried, at his route, we now have tried to get on the telephone. I’ve supplied to return and sit earlier than her and to this point that has not occurred. We had a name scheduled that was canceled, at the very least as soon as if not twice. So it has been irritating.”
Murphy did converse with Chao by telephone shortly after he made these feedback.
In the meantime, Chao has but to fulfill with one other entity with a tense relationship with DOT: the California Excessive-Pace Rail Authority, from which DOT clawed again almost $1 billion in rail funds earlier this 12 months. The authority is seeking to construct a high-speed connection between the cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles, which is meant to compress a six-hour automotive experience right into a two-hour-and-forty-minute prepare journey.
“We now have made quite a few makes an attempt to fulfill with the secretary and the administrator’s workplace, and we hope such a gathering can nonetheless happen,” mentioned California Excessive-Pace Rail Authority spokeswoman Annie Parker.
When requested whether or not Chao had met with the excessive velocity rail authority, a DOT spokesman responded that she had spoken with California Gov. Gavin Newsom on the White Home, which Newsom’s workplace mentioned was a reception for the Nationwide Governor’s Affiliation.
The American Affiliation of State Freeway and Transportation Officers, a coalition of state transportation departments, alternatively, says Chao has been “very accessible.”
“We haven’t heard something from our members to say that they really feel like there’s been any preferential remedy by some means,” mentioned Lloyd Brown, communications director at AASHTO, noting that Chao has met with the group’s complete board of administrators.
Although POLITICO’s evaluation extends just for the 14-month interval lined by the calendars that DOT launched following an open data lawsuit introduced by liberal watchdog group American Oversight, native information experiences present that Chao continues to offer facetime to Kentuckians. In September 2019, the Paducah, Kentucky, Chamber of Commerce traveled to Washington to ask DOT for $15 million for native riverfront and riverport enhancements in addition to funding for a brand new terminal at Barkley Regional Airport.
After having met with McConnell and others within the state’s congressional delegation, in line with native reporting, “Chao shocked the group and welcomed the west Kentucky contingent,” noting that “the grant utility course of is aggressive” and that “she loves the complete Paducah riverfront space.”
She signaled that DOT was giving the town’s grant request shut consideration.
“As we go ahead for brand spanking new and extra wants for the airport, we need to be useful,” she informed the group, in line with WPSD, a western Kentucky TV station. “I am unable to promise something proper now, however I can say for the primary time in a very long time Paducah’s going to have a good shot.”
After noting how aggressive it may be to get federal transportation cash, the station’s report added, “That’s why it goes an extended option to shake arms and meet head to head with the individuals making the choices.”
Chao’s conferences with Kentucky officers included state legislators, mayors, county executives, airport administrators and different elected officers, almost all of whom had grant functions or different official enterprise earlier than the division.
One county official emailed a McConnell staffer discussing how he wished to go off the Federal Freeway Administration, which was advocating for a freeway sewer pipe improve that he mentioned would value the county $1 million. One other official hoped to pitch Chao on a transportation venture in Southeastern Kentucky that might assist put “coal miners again to work.”
McConnell’s workers famous when assembly requests got here from officers with shut ties to the bulk chief.
One constituent, a non-public marketing consultant who sits on the board of Kentuckians for Higher Transportation, an umbrella advocacy group composed of politicians, chambers of commerce and companies, relayed in an e-mail to McConnell’s workplace that almost all chief himself had steered a gathering with Chao.
McConnell’s staffers usually forwarded the requests on to Inman of DOT, whom Chao had employed as her Director of Operations in early 2017. POLITICO has beforehand reported that Inman served as a particular point-of-contact for Kentuckians with enterprise earlier than the Secretary — a declare the division has repeatedly denied.
Inman, who has now superior to be Chao’s chief of workers, helped organize conferences as soon as he acquired the forwarded requests. In a single occasion, Inman helped arrange a gathering that DOT workers had deliberate to say no when it was initially requested by way of different channels. He reconsidered after the request got here instantly from McConnell’s workplace.
“I’ll revisit along with her as we initially had been going to say no,” Inman wrote to McConnell’s Kentucky State Director Terry Carmack.
“So in circumstances like this, if [Elaine Chao] can’t do it, is it potential to host them at DOT, and get an assistant secretary or 2 to fulfill with them?” Carmack replied. “That approach it’s not taking over the Secretary’s time however they really feel particular. Only a thought.”
Finally, Chao held the assembly as requested in Might 2017.
In accordance with Chao’s official calendar logs, Inman was listed as an attendee for almost 90 % of her conferences with Kentucky state and native officers, however fewer than half of her conferences with officers from different states.
A Division of Transportation spokesperson mentioned that the attendee lists don’t essentially mirror who really attended a specific assembly, and that many staffers are added to calendar occasions merely for consciousness.
Nonetheless, public data obtained by POLITICO present that Inman adopted up with assembly contributors through telephone and e-mail, providing additional data and helpful favors from his place within the division.
Inman was often involved with native officers from his hometown of Owensboro, which efficiently utilized for an $11.5 million grant after a number of conferences with Chao. Over e-mail, Inman gave native leaders recommendation about securing letters of assist for his or her venture from McConnell’s and Rep. Brett Guthrie’s workplaces, after which forwarded these letters to Chao by way of a direct channel, “so she is going to see it tonight,” in line with Inman.
In one other change, an Owensboro official requested Inman if the town’s preliminary utility for a grant had been profitable, or if they need to start spending sources on a second utility. Whereas the grant winners had not but been introduced, Inman steered that an award was unlikely this spherical — referencing his data of high-level DOT decision-making — and suggested the official to start work on a second utility.
Inman additionally supplied entry to larger rating DOT officers after studying that the Owensboro official was planning to fulfill with lower-ranking contacts within the Maritime Administration.
“I can see about getting your assembly elevated,” Inman wrote, “the Administrator and Deputy Administrator are good associates and at all times welcoming.”
Inman’s efforts had been additionally appreciated elsewhere in Kentucky.
Inman phoned and emailed with Boone County Decide-Govt Gary Moore, who met with Chao in December 2017. After profitable a $67 million transportation grant in 2018, Moore wrote to Inman to precise his gratitude for “your work and the precious advise [sic] alongside the way in which.”
“I used to be again in Kentucky doing a little state visits in August and your title got here up throughout a few of my conferences,” a McConnell staffer wrote to Inman in September 2017. “Everybody could be very appreciative of the good work you’re doing up right here.”
The eye Chao has proven towards her adopted dwelling state dovetails with the electoral aims of her husband, who for years has boasted about his capacity to leverage his affect in Washington to assist Kentucky — together with as he gears up for his 2020 reelection.
“As the one one of many 4 congressional leaders who isn’t from the coastal states of New York or California, I view it as my job to look out for center America and naturally Kentucky specifically,” he wrote in a Might op-ed for Kentucky In the present day, the web publication of the Kentucky Baptist Conference. “Which means I exploit my place as Majority Chief to advance Kentucky’s priorities.”
That might be particularly vital as Democrats goal his seat, having recruited the closely financed former fighter pilot Amy McGrath to run in opposition to him, and as he more and more depends on his ties to Trump to argue for reelection. When he appeared at Fancy Farms in 2018, a key cease for campaigns within the Bluegrass State, the Senate majority chief needed to pressure to be heard above the heckling of activists within the crowd.
Whereas Steve Robertson, a former state GOP chairman, mentioned he doubts that Kentucky voters particularly view McConnell’s marriage to Chao as an indication of his affect, the senator’s clout “completely contributes to his capacity to face up to what individuals contained in the beltway suppose are political headwinds,” he mentioned.
As such, Chao’s efforts to offer particular consideration to Kentucky officers — even when couched in phrases like giving them a “truthful shot” — concern consultants in authorities ethics.
“She’s delivering transportation time and sources to Kentucky residents in a fashion that’s not in line with different states,” mentioned Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel at Residents for Accountability and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group.
“It seems like constituent companies,” she continued.
McConnell, by no means one to apologize for his model of politics, has finished little to clear up perceptions of particular remedy for Kentucky.
When requested for remark for this story, McConnell mentioned in an e-mail, “Communities all through Kentucky had been awarded aggressive federal grants, bringing vital sources to initiatives in our state. I used to be proud to assist many of those functions. In case you are considering making use of for aggressive federal grants, I hope you’ll contact my workplace.” His workplace additionally despatched a rundown of different federal grants McConnell helped safe, together with $743,000 for drone know-how and $11 million for the Blue Grass Airport close to Lexington.
In June, when reporters requested the senator if he was getting particular remedy from his spouse’s division, McConnell quipped: “You already know, I used to be complaining to [Chao] simply final night time, 169 initiatives and Kentucky obtained solely 5.”
Federal ethics laws stipulate that staff within the government department shouldn’t take part in issues wherein relations or enterprise associates have a stake: “The place the worker determines that the circumstances would trigger an inexpensive individual with data of the related information to query his impartiality within the matter, the worker shouldn’t take part within the matter,” the laws state.
However there’s no statutory mechanism to mandate recusals at such senior ranges within the division, at the very least not for circumstances like this, Dubnick, the College of New Hampshire professor, mentioned.
As such, whereas Chao’s coziness to Kentucky pursuits might assist her husband win elections in a traditionally poor state the place federal dollars have lengthy carried additional weight, she is probably not breaking any guidelines.
Some native officers say they’ve discovered it almost unattainable to achieve Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao personally, even to debate the biggest initiatives within the nation. | Getty Photographs
“There’s nothing unlawful about what’s happening, so long as there’s no quid professional quo,” Dubnick mentioned.
McConnell, as he’s finished up to now, can level out that he’s merely serving to his state. The division, because it’s finished up to now, can level out that Kentucky ranks roughly within the center within the quantity of DOT program cash it receives, and that, in fact, Chao loves her adopted dwelling state.
“We’re not a lot an points state a lot as a patronage state,” mentioned longtime political columnist Al Cross. “We wish issues from the federal authorities. I take a look at patronage within the bigger sense, it’s bringing dwelling the bacon. And Kentuckians admire his capacity to convey dwelling the bacon.”