Amid New Report of Secretary Chao Using a Taxpayer-Funded Program to Dole Out Favors, Chair DeFazio Formally Requests DOT Inspector General Broaden Ongoing Inquiry
Two months after requesting that the U.S. Department of Transportation Inspector General investigate reports that U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and her staff gave preferential treatment for discretionary grants, today Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) formally asked the Inspector General to broaden the inquiry.
In accordance with Chair DeFazio’s original request, the DOT IG is currently investigating whether Secretary Chao gave preferential treatment to organizations and projects in Kentucky, where her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is running for re-election. The discretionary grant program, known as INFRA, is funded by taxpayers and approved by Congress.
In his letter to DOT’s Inspector General Calvin L. Scovel, Chair DeFazio wrote: “… new information has emerged that points to a troubling pattern of potential favoritism by the Secretary and her inner circle of staff at the Department of Transportation (DOT) and has heightened my concern about these issues. The DOT should be working for all Americans and all states in the United States of America and the grant making process to shore up our nation’s infrastructure should not be ensnared by political criteria…. I hope you will take this new information into account as part of your current review of these issues.”
The full letter is below. For a PDF version of the letter, click here.
December 20, 2019
Calvin L. Scovel III
Office of Inspector General
United States Department of Transportation
1200 New Jersey Avenue SE
Washington, D.C. 20590
Dear Inspector General Scovel:
I last wrote to you in October about my concerns regarding news reports that suggested Secretary Elaine Chao disproportionately approved discretionary grants to Kentucky, the same state her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, represents in the U.S. Senate. I appreciate the fact that your office is now engaged in a review of these and related issues. However, in the two months since I originally wrote to you about these matters new information has emerged that points to a troubling pattern of potential favoritism by the Secretary and her inner circle of staff at the Department of Transportation (DOT) and has heightened my concern about these issues. The DOT should be working for all Americans and all states in the United States of America and the grant making process to shore up our nation’s infrastructure should not be ensnared by political criteria.
The most recent story on this matter by Politico, published earlier this week and based on records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act validates many of these previously reported issues and reveals that Secretary Chao’s office has degraded the ability of career staff at DOT to objectively access the merits of grant applications. Last June, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) also raised concerns about the Infrastructure and Rebuilding America (INFRA) grant program and found it “lacked consistency and transparency” “and the assurance of fairness.” In addition, GAO was unable to obtain key information justifying some of the controversial grants that Secretary Chao approved for Kentucky as part of their own review.
I hope you will take this new information into account as part of your current review of these issues. Thank you again for your assistance in this matter.
PETER A. DeFAZIO
cc: SAM GRAVES, Ranking Member
 Tanya Snyder, Tucker Doherty & Arren Kimbel-Sannit, “Elaine Chao favored Kentuckians in meeting with officials seeking grants,” Politico, Oct. 7, 2019, accessed here: https://www.politico.com/news/2019/10/07/elaine-chao-kentucky-officials-grants-028412.
 Tucker Doherty and Tanya Snyder, “Chao’s team helped McConnell’s state win its largest DOT grant,” Politico, Dec. 17, 2019, accessed here: https://www.politico.com/news/2019/12/17/chao-mcconnell-transportation-kentucky-086343