DOT dismisses allegations in Congress’ ethics investigation against Chao

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Updated Oct 3, 2019
Secretary of Transportation Elaine ChaoSecretary of Transportation Elaine Chao

The Department of Transportation has responded to an ethics probe brought by the House’s Oversight Committee by saying allegations that Secretary Elaine Chao has abused her role as the DOT’s boss are untrue.

Specifically, the Sept. 30 letter calls allegations that Chao has used her position at the DOT to benefit her family’s maritime shipping company as “simply false,” chalking the accusations up in part to misunderstandings about her family and their relationship.

“The web of innuendo and the baseless inferences contained in these [allegations] demonstrate a fundamental lack of understanding of…cultural values [that] are central to East Asian culture and families.” Chao is Taiwanese, and her family immigrated to the U.S. when she was 12.

The letter was sent by Adam Sullivan, DOT’s assistant secretary, to leaders of the House’s Oversight Committee. The Oversight Committee last month announced it had opened an investigation into the allegations that Chao violated ethical standards by arranging meetings between Chinese officials and her father and sister, who own the shipping company the Foremost Group, and that she took steps to cut funding for programs that prioritize American-flagged vessels over foreign-flagged vessels, such as those operated by Foremost. The House’s Oversight Committee also is investigating whether Chao properly divested from a holdings company that secures road contracts from DOT.

The investigations were prompted by reports by The New York Times and Politico detailing the claims earlier this year.

“The allegation that the Secretary has advocated to deprioritize or reduce funding for DOT programs that benefit U.S.-flagged vessels in foreign trade is not only baseless, but in fact the opposite is true,” Sullivan writes in this letter. “Secretary Chao has been one of the nation’s strongest advocates for the U.S.-flagged maritime industry.”

Relative to the claims that Chao did not properly divest from Vulcan Materials, Sullivan argues that both the Office of Government Ethics and the DOT’s  Designated Agency Ethics Officials reviewed Chao’s holdings in the company and found no conflicts of interest. When the reports surfaced earlier this year about questions around those holdings, she sold her stake in Vulcan, Sullivan says.