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power couple

Mitch McConnell lost some of his money-funneling power when Congress banned earmarks. Then his wife became a Cabinet secretary.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) touts his ability to steer federal money to his home state. For example, after the city of Owensboro named a plaza for him in 2003, McConnell steered $40 million to the city in 2005, and Owensboro's support helped him survive a close 2008 election. That kind of patronage became harder after congressional Republicans banned earmarks — or "pork" — in 2011, but not impossible. Last year, Owensboro won an $11.5 million Transportation Department grant on its third try, with some help from McConnell's wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Politico reports, citing emails obtained though a public-records request.

Chao appointed a top aide in 2017 as special liaison to help McConnell "and local Kentucky officials on grants with special significance for McConnell," Politico reports, "paving the way for grants totaling at least $78 million for favored projects as McConnell prepared to campaign for re-election." The aide, Todd Inman, lived in Owensboro from 1993 to 2017, worked on McConnell's 2008 and 2014 campaigns, and is now Chao's chief of staff. His intercession for Kentucky is "a privilege other states did not enjoy," Politico notes.

The Transportation Department insists "no state receives special treatment" and Owensboro won the grants through an open, competitive process. But McConnell and local officials publicly tout the key role McConnell, Chao, and Inman played in steering federal transportation grants to Owensboro, and a former career official involved in the grant review process told Politico that after the professional staff hand grant recommendations in to a Cabinet secretary's office, politics often determine the outcome, regardless of party.

"Where a Cabinet secretary is doing things that are going to help her husband get re-elected, that starts to rise to the level of feeling more like corruption to the average American," John Hudak, a Brookings Institution expert on political influence on grant-making, tells Politico. "I do think there are people who will see that as sort of 'swamp behavior,'" even if it isn't illegal. Read more at Politico.