An aide to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao helped direct grant money and other benefits to Kentucky, which her husband Mitch McConnell represents in the U.S. Senate.
Chao aide Todd Inman helped advise the Senate majority leader and local Kentucky officials on grants totaling $78 million as McConnell prepares to run for re-election, and he said in an email to the Republican senator's office that the Transportation secretary had personally asked him to intervene, reported Politico.
Chao and her chief of staff have met annually starting in April 2017 with a group of officials in Inman's hometown of Owensboro, a McConnell stronghold, to discuss road upgrades to a commercial riverport and a proposal to reclassify portions of a local parkway as an interstate to help spur business investment.
Inman adised the riverport authority on how to improve their grant application, and he also discussed the project with Al Mattingly, chief executive of Daviess County, where Owensboro is located.
“Todd probably smoothed the way, I mean, you know, used his influence,” Mattingly told Politico. “Everybody says that projects stand on their own merit, right? So if I’ve got 10 projects, and they’re all equal, where do you go to break the tie?”
“Well, let’s put it this way," Mattingly added. "I only have her ear an hour when I go to visit (Chao) once a year. With a local guy, he has her ear 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You tell me.”
Inman also communicated with McConnell's office about requests from county executives to meet with Chao to discuss other projects in Kentucky, including a $67 million discretionary grant to upgrade roads in rural Boone County, another McConnell stronghold just south of Cincinnati.
That project was approved in June 2018.
A former career official who was involved in the grant review process across multiple administrations said politics often plays a role in doling out funding.
"(It's) really, very common, I would say across parties,” that former official said.
“It’s always going to be political,” the former official added. “We have a merit-based process that we essentially ignore, [and] it’s really detrimental to meeting national transportation needs and having people feel like the process is worth engaging in.”
However, one ethics watchdog said showing political favoritism in grant awards violated ethical standards, and having a husband-wife team taking part in those decisions adds an additional level of concern.
“There’s a standard for government employees; they’re expected to be impartial,” said Virginia Canter, a former White House associate counsel under Barack Obama and Bill Clinton and current ethics counsel for the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “When you have a spouse who’s the head of an agency and the other spouse is a leading member of Congress — and their office is referring matters to the department, and they’re flagging things from donors, from people with particular political affiliations, who are quote-unquote ‘friends’ — it raises the question of whether the office, instead of being used purely for official purposes, is being used for political purposes."
“The fact that they’re both in these very important positions gives them the opportunity to be watching out for each other’s political and professional interests,” Canter added. “Anytime a member of Congress can bring home funding to his or her community it could make a difference. It shows the member is being responsive.”