When Todd Inman, of Owensboro, Kentucky, left that city at a bend in the Ohio River in January 2017 to become director of operations in the U.S. Department of Transportation, he expressed mixed feelings about his departure. A local businessman, Inman was steeped in statewide Republican politics. After Donald Trump was elected president, Inman was tapped for the Transportation job by Elaine Chao, a veteran of previous Republican administrations, who became Trump’s Secretary of Transportation.
Inman had worked in the 2008 and 2014 Senate campaigns for Chao’s husband, U.S. Sen. (and Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.
“It’s with great honor but also sadness that on Friday I accepted a Presidential appointment to work for the Honorable Elaine L. Chao as a Director in the cabinet of the United States Department of Transportation,” Inman announced. “While this means I must leave my family, friends and business in Owensboro it is humbling to know I can be of service to our country.”
It’s a refrain voiced frequently by people chosen for or elected to governmental posts in Washington — a call to duty, as it were, with an implication of sacrifice. Inman quite likely was sincere in his wistful departure message.
But the Honorable Elaine Chao does not seem similarly humbled. The evidence indicates that she has used her position to further her own financial interests, those of her family’s shipping company, and the career interests of her husband, Sen. McConnell. Chao, her relatives and McConnell have vehemently, even self-righteously, denied it.
But here’s a point that has obviously eluded them — and eludes a great many of the people who “serve” us in Washington: They are duty-bound to turn advantages they might have — specifically, opportunities presented by innocent circumstances that could benefit them personally — into disadvantages. They should shun those opportunities, even if they seem merely incidental and innocent. Good government, and the perception of good government, requires it. Officials at the federal level earn good salaries, have excellent benefits and do important work. That should be enough for them.
Chao has run afoul of these principles in three episodes.
First, she failed to divest herself of stock in two companies that stand to benefit hugely from work authorized by the department she oversees. One of these, Vulcan Materials Company, is the country’s largest supplier of crushed stone, sand and gravel used in road construction. Chao owned stock and served on the company’s board. Informed by government ethics officials following her appointment of the stark appearance of impropriety in owning stock while also authorizing lucrative construction projects, Chao said she would separate from the company. Her separation package, however, took the form of stock that has reportedly paid her around $40,000 a year.
Chao claims this was a misunderstanding. We think she protesteth too much. Ethics officials spotted the problem when she took office. That should have sufficed. (She sold the stock last week.)
Her second misstep relates to her attempt to arrange for relatives to join her in meetings with Chinese officials in late 2017. Her family owns a multi-billion-dollar international maritime shipping company called Foremost Group. (Chao has not participated in the venture since the 1970s.) The New York Times reported that the company has “deep ties to China.” Chao’s sister, Angela, CEO of Foremost, wrote in a letter published in the Times that “Your implication that . . . we have benefited from her public service are as insulting as they are uninformed.”
Wherever the truth lies, the fact that Chao thought this would be acceptable conduct is astonishing. An appalled embassy official reported the request to ethics officials and Chao backed down.
Then there’s her husband — and this is where Todd Inman re-enters the story. Inman became a Department of Transportation liaison to Kentucky, advising the state in its quest for funds for infrastructure projects from the DOT. McConnell, as senators do, has campaigned upon his success in steering federal dollars to home-state projects. It is legal and acceptable to do so.
But McConnell’s wife is the Secretary of Transportation! What’s wrong with this picture, and why do McConnell and Chao fail to see it? As a New Jersey congressman who is seeking funds for critical infrastructure improvements linking New Jersey and New York said, “I just found it strange that no senior official at the Department of Transportation has been appointed to help me get transportation grants of special significance to New Jersey. It must be an oversight.”
There should be a standard: “Three ‘oversights’ and you’re out.” Elaine Chao should go.