draining the swamp
March 3, 2021

The Department of Transportation's inspector general found that former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao used her office to benefit her family, primarily her father and sister, and in December referred the case to the Justice Department.

Chao, the wife of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), served in the Trump administration, and resigned on Jan. 7, following the Capitol riot. The report was sent to lawmakers on Tuesday, and includes more than a dozen instances of the office promoting the interests of Chao's father, who founded a shipping company in the 1960s, and her sister, who now runs the company.

The report states that in 2017, Chao had her staff plan an official trip to China. Her father, sister, and brother-in-law were set to join Chao, and she wanted the itinerary to include stops at locations that were only important to her family, such as two universities that receive funding from their charitable foundation. The trip was canceled after it raised ethics concerns among other government officials, The New York Times reports.

Investigators also learned that Chao asked staffers to help promote a book written by her father, edit his Wikipedia page, and check on the status of a work permit application for a foreign student who won a scholarship from Chao's family foundation. The report states that none of the Transportation Department employees who spoke with investigators said they ever felt "coerced" into performing "personal or inappropriate tasks for the secretary."

In December, the findings were referred to the Justice Department for a possible criminal investigation, but the DOJ decided not to take up the case. The inspector general ended the investigation due to a lack of "prosecutorial interest," but did refer the matter to the Transportation Department's general counsel "for any action it deems appropriate." Read more at The New York Times. Catherine Garcia

February 13, 2019

Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke stepped down in December, the focus of multiple investigations, but he's landed on his feet.

Zinke is now a senior adviser with the Washington, D.C., lobbying firm Turnberry Solutions, where he will focus on defense and energy matters in Washington, California, and Montana. He is the first former member of President Trump's Cabinet to join a lobbying firm, Politico reports. Zinke's not the only person in Trump's orbit to get a job at Turnberry Solutions; his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, also just signed on as a senior adviser. Jason Osborne, a partner at the firm, told Politico that Zinke will likely register as a lobbyist, but Lewandowski will not.

While Zinke was leading the Interior Department, he was the subject of at least 15 investigations, The Washington Post reports. One involved his link to a real estate deal with a company regulated by the Interior Department, and another looked at his use of a security detail during a vacation in Turkey. Catherine Garcia

December 19, 2018

In May 2017 and August 2018, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross submitted certified statements to federal ethics officials saying he had divested BankUnited stock, but he actually owned the stock until Oct. 1, the Center for Public Integrity reports.

Under his federal ethics agreement, Ross was supposed to sell his stock within 90 days of his Senate confirmation, which gave him until the end of May 2017. The Center for Public Integrity obtained a disclosure he filed in October which states that while he previously reported selling the stock, he had done so "based on a mistaken belief that the agent executed my sell order on that date." In an email to the Center for Public Integrity, Ross said he thought the shares were sold on May 31, 2017, and the October transaction report "corrected an earlier filing." The stock was valued at up to $15,000.

This isn't the first time Ross has submitted documents saying he divested stocks but hadn't; in November 2017, he told federal ethics officials he sold his Invesco Ltd. stock valued at between $10 million and $50 million, but he didn't actually sell it until December 2017. Austin Evers, executive director of the watchdog group American Oversight, told the Center for Public Integrity it's clear Ross is "not taking his ethics obligations seriously," and needs to be audited. "This is the latest in a series of omissions and claimed mistakes that have begun to add up to something that looks very suspicious," Evers said. Catherine Garcia

September 26, 2017

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt doesn't like to release his appointment calendar, and to ensure that his phone conversations remain private as well, the EPA is spending close to $25,000 to install a soundproof communications booth in his office.

This type of booth is typically used to conduct hearing tests, but the EPA wanted "a secure phone booth that couldn't be breached from a data point of view or from someone standing outside eavesdropping," Steve Snider, an acoustic sales consultant with the company building the booth, told The Washington Post. An EPA spokeswoman told the Post that the booth, called a "Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility," is something most, if not all, Cabinet offices have. Former EPA employees said the agency has always had a SCIF, on a floor away from Pruitt's office.

Under Pruitt, the EPA is becoming a more secretive place — some employees have been asked to hand over their cellphones before meetings, and Pruitt rarely uses email, instead giving directives to people in person and during meetings, the Post reports. His emails have been scrutinized before — messages from his time as Oklahoma's attorney general show he worked closely with oil and gas companies to fight against the Obama administration's environmental protections.

Additionally, Pruitt has not followed in the footsteps of his predecessors, who posted their appointment calendars; it wasn't until last week that details from months of meetings were released, due to Freedom of Information Act requests filed by several media outlets. The calendars show that Pruitt has been meeting with car, mining, and fossil fuel company executives, oftentimes just before making decisions in favor of those industries, the Post says. Pruitt has also tripled the number of people to his security detail, and now special agents that would otherwise be investigating environmental crimes are instead protecting Pruitt. You can read more about Pruitt's EPA impact at The Washington Post. Catherine Garcia

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