Inspector General Closes Ethics Probe Into Elaine Chao, Angering Dems

Elaine Chao / Getty
March 5, 2021

Democrats and liberal groups are calling for further action after a Tuesday report from the Department of Transportation's inspector general ended the probe into former Trump administration transportation secretary Elaine Chao without disciplinary action.

The inspector general's Tuesday report formally closed the inquiry into Chao's potential ethics violations, which began in 2019 at the request of Democratic lawmakers on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. On three of the four alleged ethics violations, the inspector general said there wasn't enough evidence of wrongdoing to open an investigation. On the one issue the inspector general did formally investigate, whether Chao misused the agency's resources, the watchdog found no interest in pursuing a prosecution.

"The [U.S. Attorneys Office] stated that there may be ethical and/or administrative issues to address but there is not predication to open a criminal investigation," the report said, leading to a decision to formally close the inquiry. "Based on the lack of prosecutorial interest from [the Department of Justice], [the Office of the Inspector General] has determined it will close this investigation."

The finding has not tempered Democrats' and liberal groups' desire to prosecute former officials.

Reps. Peter DeFazio (D., Ore.) and Carolyn Maloney (D., N.Y.), the lawmakers who originally requested the probe, released a joint statement condemning Chao in response to the inspector general report. DeFazio said he was "disappointed" that the report came after Chao had already left office and that the probe will not be pursued further.

"I am disappointed that it was not completed and released while Secretary Chao was still in office," DeFazio said. "I am even more disappointed that the Department of Justice declined to further pursue the matters."

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a liberal watchdog, cited the inspector general report in a call for authorities to "criminally investigate" Chao.

Rep. Sam Graves (R., Mo.), DeFazio's Republican counterpart on the committee, called the investigation a "complete waste of time and taxpayer resources."

"Those responsible for instigating this politically motivated attack represent Washington at its worst," Graves said.

A spokesman for Chao blasted the probe as "an election-year effort to impugn her history-making career as the first Asian-American woman appointed to a President's cabinet."

Rep. James Comer (R., Ky.), the top Republican on the Oversight and Reform Committee, called on Democrats to end their "divisive obsession" with prosecuting the Trump administration.

"The Inspector General concluded Secretary Chao’s meetings were routine and she followed ethics and financial disclosure rules," Comer said. "Democrats should abandon their unproductive and divisive obsession with attacking Trump Administration officials and instead focus on doing work that actually benefits the American people."

Chao was succeeded at the Transportation Department by former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg.