The Transportation Department’s watchdog asked the Justice Department to criminally investigate Elaine Chao late last year over concerns that she 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 department’s inspector general found that Chao used her staff and office for personal tasks and to promote a shipping business owned by Chao’s father and sisters, in an apparent violation of federal ethics rules.
But when the inspector general’s office referred its findings to the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington and prosecutors at the Justice Department who focus on public integrity cases, both declined to bring charges, the report said.
“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. The shipping company owned by her family does substantial business with China.
“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.