After Potential Hatch Act Violation, Restore Public Trust Calls for A Congressional Investigation of Chao

Yahoo News article detailed ways that Secretary Chao has used her position to funnel grant money and other favors to Paducah, KY, a political stronghold for Mitch McConnell

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, following yet another article that details Chao’s use of her public office to help the career of her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Restore Public Trust called on Congress to investigate. The story outlined how Chao has worked over decades in Paducah, KY, beginning with her time as Secretary of Labor, to give grant money, add two government offices, and even campaign for McConnell, raising questions about Hatch Act violations. 

“Secretary Chao and Senate Majority Leader McConnell are the personification of Trump’s swamp,” said Lizzy Price, spokesperson for Restore Public Trust. “If Congress cares about their oversight role, they cannot turn a blind eye to this apparent corruption. We have seen story after story about Chao using her office to help her husband’s political career or boost her family’s business, and now there may be a Hatch Act violation. It’s past time for Congress to investigate.”

Just yesterday, former White House Associate Counsel Virginia Cantor said that Chao’s actions fit in with the definition of corruption. And today, former George W. Bush ethics lawyer Richard Painter said that Chao may have violated the Hatch Act, but was “a lot shrewder” and more “subtle” than Kellyanne Conway, a current White House official who allegedly violated the Hatch Act and is testifying in House Oversight today. 

See below for excerpts from the Yahoo News story.


Yahoo News: How Mitch McConnell and Elaine Chao turned a Kentucky town into their personal swamp

Why does Paducah love McConnell so much? Probably because for years, he and his wife, Elaine Chao — currently the transportation secretary and previously, under George W. Bush, the secretary of labor — have carefully cultivated and courted Paducah’s interests in ways that critics charge improperly mix their responsibilities, so that the politics of one can appear indistinguishable from the policy of another.

Over the past decade and a half, Paducah has reaped $509 million in funds from federal departments Chao has been in charge of, according to Restore Public Trust, a progressive group that has tracked the Chao-McConnell relationship. Outwardly, that funding appears to violate no laws, but critics say it is improper all the same.

“The facts are clear — Secretary Elaine Chao helped her husband politically through Department of Transportation grants, through Department of Labor grants, and she used her position to campaign for him,” Lizzy Price, a spokesperson for Restore Public Trust, told Yahoo News. “Taxpayers don’t pay Secretary Chao’s salary so that she can boost her husband’s political career. Chao’s actions are as swampy as Trump’s administration gets and merit a thorough investigation.”

Price and others say that Paducah is a perfect case study of how Washington’s most powerful couple have tended to the very kind of swamp Trump promised to drain. They have done so strategically, consistently and with little notice, according to those making such accusations. And they have done so for years.

Paducah is hardly the only example. Politico recently reported that Chao fast-tracked projects favored by McConnell in Owensboro, another Kentucky town on the Ohio River. There, as in Paducah, Chao pushed for projects that McConnell supported and that appeared to benefit him politically.

Critics say, however, that McConnell has exerted influence all the same, albeit in ways that are difficult to track. Briefed on the issue, former George W. Bush ethics lawyer Richard Painter said that Chao could have a “Kellyanne Conway problem,” referring to the senior Trump official who was recently criticized for allegedly violating the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from using their office to promote partisan goals. Trump has defended those alleged violations, which include sharply worded attacks on Democrats, as nothing but Conway’s exercise of her First Amendment free-speech rights.

“The House of Representatives should investigate, see what they can find” about Chao’s work intersecting with McConnell’s political prospects, said Painter, a vociferous opponent of the Trump administration. He added that Chao was “a lot shrewder” than Conway and a lot more “subtle.” He also acknowledged that there were ways for Chao to support her husband’s political career without violating the Hatch Act. Indeed, the couple’s supporters say she has done only that, and nothing more.

Chao arrived at the offices of the Paducah Sun, the town’s only newspaper, in October, less than a month before the election. There, she “laid out a compelling case for the senator’s re-election,” the Sun wrote in its Oct. 12 editorial. The editorial acknowledged that “her job” in Paducah “was campaigning for her husband.”

In campaigning for McConnell, Chao could have been in violation of the Hatch Act, according to Painter, the former White House ethics lawyer. Passed in 1939, the Hatch Act curbs federal employees’ political activity while attempting not to infringe on their First Amendment rights.

In this case, a violation would have occurred if Chao presented herself as the federal labor secretary, Painter explained. He said there is “strong” reason to make the inference that she did so, since the editorial did praise Chao for “working to keep America’s workforce competitive in a rapidly evolving global economy.” At the same time, it is impossible to say whether that apparent reference was made at Chao’s explicit urging. She cannot be blamed, after all, for the newspaper’s failure to explain to its readers the division between Chao’s duties as a federal employee and her personal political interests.

A spokesperson for the department referred the matter to the Department of Transportation.

“The secretary can and does appear at events with or for her husband in her personal capacity, and had a drop-by with the Paducah Sun, as she has done in the past,” a Transportation Department spokesperson said.

Editors at the Sun did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

At the very least, the editorial was evidence of how easy it was to conflate the work of the duo. It said, for example, that McConnell “has helped secure more than $1 billion for cleanup at the Gaseous Diffusion Plant.” About half of that funding had come from his wife’s department. (The rest came from other federal sources.)


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