Chao has met at least 10 times with politicians and business leaders from the state in response to requests from McConnell’s office.
A trove of more than 800 pages of emails sheds new light on the working relationship between Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, one of the most potent power couples in Washington — including their dealings with McConnell supporters from their home state of Kentucky.
Chao has met at least 10 times with politicians and business leaders from the state in response to requests from McConnell’s office, according to documents provided to POLITICO by the watchdog group American Oversight. In some cases, those people later received what they were hoping for from Chao’s department, including infrastructure grants, the designation of an interstate highway and assistance in getting state funds for a highway project — although the documents don’t indicate the meetings led to those outcomes.
The records also do not show how frequently Chao has met with people from outside Kentucky, a state her husband has represented in the Senate since 1985, or how readily she has responded to similar requests from other lawmakers. But at least a dozen of the emails show McConnell’s staff acting as a conduit between Chao and Kentucky political figures or business leaders, some of whom have had prior relationships with the couple.
In one email from Feb. 2, 2017, just days after Chao was sworn in, McConnell’s state director emailed a Chao lieutenant asking the secretary to meet with maritime industry lobbyist Jim Adams about proposed changes to “Buy American, Hire American” requirements for offshore drilling equipment. The lobbyist and his wife, a Kentucky state senator who used to work for McConnell, donated $1,500 to McConnell’s 2014 reelection campaign, according to FEC filings.
“The Secretary knows them both well,” McConnell state director Terry Carmack wrote to Todd Inman, who at the time was director of operations at the Department of Transportation. Chao met with the lobbyist the following month, according to her calendar.
Carmack also requested a meeting in April 2017 for Greg DeLancey, the general manager of Taylor Motors in Murray, Ky., a government contractor that provides bus services primarily to the Defense Department. Carmack wrote that DeLancey was “the Calloway county GOP chairman and about to be the first district GOP chair.” Chao met with someone from Taylor Motors in July 2017. When the McConnell staffer asked Inman to arrange a meeting for Jason Vincent and other people from the Pennyrile Area Development District during a March 2017 fly-in, he noted that some of the representatives were “friends.”
American Oversight obtained the emails under the Freedom of Information Act. The group’s executive director and founder, Austin Evers, said they show an unusually close relationship between a Senate leader and a member of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet — and that “Secretary Chao built a political operation in her office to favor Kentucky.”
“We launched this investigation because we were intrigued by the president’s selection of Elaine Chao as Transportation secretary,” Evers said. “The media and political class identified it as a savvy move to hire the spouse of the majority leader of the Senate. We wanted to see what that relationship looked like.”
DOT said no such favoritism exists, and that any agency “would be responsive to the requests of the Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate.”