Three of the nation’s maritime academies were unwittingly drawn into the investigation of possible ethic violations by former Transportation Department Secretary Elaine Chao that culminated in a critical report released last week by the department’s inspector general but not a finding of wrongdoing.
DOT’s watchdog office said that Chao, who served as President Trump’s appointee to run the Transportation Department and is married to Sen. Mitch McConnell, mixed family with official business when she repeatedly used her staff and her powerful post to jettison the reputation of her family, and most specifically that of her father who founded the Foremost Group, a New York-based shipping company with ties to China.
The March 2 OIG report did not conclude that she broke federal ethics laws, which prohibit employees from using their public office for private gain or for the private gain of friends, family or others. But the report, which was released after Chao left office, detailed many instances in which she used her position to promote her family, including the intention to bring her father and other relatives on an official trip to China that included meetings with high-level officials, and directing her staff to help promote a book written by her father, as well as perform personal errands.
Chao denied the allegations. In a statement to the inspector general, Chao said it was expected in the Asian culture to respect and honor one’s family.
The report provides evidence that she told her public affairs staff to help her father, James S.C. Chao, who was born in Taiwan and built a successful New York-based shipping business, promote his biography and help develop and implement a media strategy to market the book and his career accomplishments. This included helping edit his Wikipedia page and keeping a running list of his awards, many of which were bestowed by maritime academies that receive federal support for training and operations through DOT’s Maritime Administration.
Specifically, the report said that in 2018 DOT staffers “drafted, edited and implemented a media strategy and public relations plan” to support the secretary’s father. Among the tasks were to highlight awards that Mr. Chao was to receive, including those upcoming at SUNY Maritime College in New York (at an annual fundraising dinner) and at Massachusetts Maritime Academy (an honorary degree at commencement).
Quoting from the strategy document, the OIG report says the goal was “amplifying coverage in regional press a means to build Dr. Chao’s profile and to share the story of his journey.” This included “work with SUNY Maritime to pitch award and event,” and help to organize the 2018 events at SUNY and MMA.
In 2017, the report also said the DOT secretary gave the commencement address at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y. Her father attended as her guest. The secretary’s office instructed staffers to notify the Chinese press about the event and Ms. Chao told them to distribute the speech only to Chinese media outlets that she specified.
The Chao family has close ties to both the New York and Massachusetts academies. The Chao Family Foundation established two scholarships for studying at SUNY Maritime College. The Ruth Mulan Chu Chao and James Si-Cheng Chao Endowed Scholarship Fund provides aid to high achieving graduate students who also have a “significant interest in Chinese culture and language,” and the Mulan Educational Scholarship Fund helps students from the National Taiwan Ocean University pursue graduate studies at SUNY Maritime, according to the websites of the Foremost Group and the college.
On May 1, 2018, SUNY Maritime honored Mr. Chao and his daughter Angela, who now heads Foremost Group, at the school’s Annual Admiral’s Scholarship Dinner. “Like the lessons I learned at a young age, SUNY Maritime College plays a vital role in educating the next generation of maritime leaders,” Mr. Chao said in receiving the award. Secretary Chao was to attend the event, give remarks and introduce her father and sister, and DOT staffers were involved in coordinating the event with SUNY and targeting certain media for coverage, but the secretary ultimately did not attend, delegating the event to Maritime Administrator Mark Buzby, according to the report.
At Mass Maritime, Mr. Chao received an honorary doctorate degree in public administration at the June 22 commencement. The report said that the school had considered presenting a degree to either the secretary or another Chao family member. Ethics officials at DOT said in March 2018 that it was OK for the secretary to receive the degree if certain conditions were met. A month later, the secretary declined and the report says that MMA offered the honorary degree to the secretary’s father. MMA President Rear Adm. Francis X. McDonald told OIG officials that Angela Chao has been on MMA’s Board of Advisors since before her sister’s nomination as DOT secretary.
The Secretary Chao was scheduled to give the MMA commencement address, attend the event in her official capacity and present the honorary degree to her father. Her staff coordinated with MMA organizers in planning the event, according to the OIG report. DOT ethics attorneys were informed of this and offered advice that was blocked out in the report. The secretary did not ultimately give the commencement remarks and she attended the MMA graduation in a personal capacity. She “didn’t sit with her father and sat towards the end of the stage, outside the view of the cameras.”
Investigators submitted their completed report to Congress last week and referred their findings to the Justice Department in December, which did not pursue a criminal investigation. Secretary Chao resigned on Jan. 7, saying she was “deeply troubled” by the Capitol riots the day before. Her term was to expire upon President Biden’s inauguration.
Republicans called the investigation politically motivated, while Democratic members of Congress who requested the investigation expressed dismay at the late release of the report and the absence of consequences for the secretary.