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Transportation Department watchdog asked DOJ to consider criminal probe of then-Secretary Elaine Chao over ethics concerns

March 4, 2021. Summarized by summa-bot.

Compression ratio: 64.6%. 2 min read.

Elaine Chao, U.S. secretary of transportation, speaks during the White House State Leadership Day conference in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018. President Donald Trump??said he is passing responsibility to Congress for responding to the killing of U.S.-based journalist??Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Transportation Department's inspector general asked the Justice Department in December to consider a criminal probe into then-Secretary Elaine Chao over her alleged misuse of office, documents made public Wednesday said, including her alleged use of staff for personal tasks like sending Christmas ornaments to family.

Washington (CNN)The Transportation Department's inspector general asked the Justice Department in December to consider a criminal probe into then-Secretary Elaine Chao over her alleged misuse of office, documents made public Wednesday said, including her alleged use of staff for personal tasks like sending Christmas ornaments to family.

The Justice Department and the US Attorney's Office in Washington, however, declined to pursue the case in the final weeks of the Trump administration, stating there "may be ethical and/or administrative issues to address but there is not predication to open a criminal investigation," according to Transportation Department Deputy Inspector General Mitch Behm's 38-page report detailing his office's extensive ethics concerns surrounding Chao's conduct.

The probe had been requested by the Democratic leadership of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, which asked the IG's office to investigate Chao's "possible conflicts of interest," including various reports that her office was giving "preferential treatment to Kentucky. " Behm wrote that his preliminary review did not find "a sufficient basis" to formally investigate those claims but an investigation into potential misuse of office was warranted.

Chao, who is married to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, had used agency staff for tasks that "appear to be personal in nature," the report stated, citing its investigation.

This included tasking staff with editing her father's Wikipedia page and sending a copy of his book "to a well-known CEO of a major U. S. corporation," the inspector general's report said, citing a review of emails and interviews with department staffers.

Investigators said that, in one instance, Chao allegedly directed political appointees on her staff to reach out to the Department of Homeland Security regarding a work permit application for a student "who was a recipient of Chao family's philanthropy," the report stated.

Inspector general investigators said Chao allegedly made plans to include family members during a planned work trip to China that was ultimately canceled, the report added.

The inspector general report said Chao declined to respond to questions as part of the investigation, but DOT General Counsel Steven Bradbury provided a memo in September that emphasized the cultural value of supporting family.

Chao faced swift backlash from Democrats on Wednesday evening after the inspector general report became public.

"The DOT Inspector General's report, in addition to documents we obtained, demonstrate that Secretary Chao used her official position and taxpayer resources for the benefit of herself and her family," House Oversight Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat, said in a statement.

Republican House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee ranking member Sam Graves of Missouri, however, defended Chao's "tireless work" in a statement that said her tenure would not be "diminished" by the investigation.

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