Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao created a position for a special liaison for grant applications in Kentucky, which just happens to be the home state of her husband and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. A recent report shows that so far, at least $78 million for McConnell’s projects have been approved.
Todd Inman, the staffer turned liaison, reportedly identified himself and his position in an email to McConnell’s office, saying that he had been asked personally by Chao to aid the senator and local Kentucky officials on grants significant to the GOP leader.
One of those grants happens to be a highway-improvement project which had been rejected twice already but which McConnell was holding onto in hopes of getting it off the ground.
Inman and Chao allegedly began in April 2017 to have yearly meetings with local officials from Owensboro, Ky., and hammer out the detail of plans that would see an upgrade in road connections to a river port and the reclassifying of a local parkway as an interstate.
Inman went on to become Chao’s chief of staff, but reportedly emailed the very river port authority who would benefit from the upgrade with suggestions on how to improve their application to assure an approval for the project. The chief executive of Daviess County, where Owensboro is located, Al Mattingly, suggested that Inman was a key player in the approval process, telling Politico:
“Todd probably smoothed the way, I mean, you know, used his influence… 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: I only have her ear an hour when I go to visit her once a year… With a local guy, he has her ear 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You tell me.”Chief Executive of Daviess County, Al Mattingly
The grants, along with Chao’s appointing of Inman to special liasion, raise ethical questions concerning the Chao and McConnell’s marriage and the effect that relationship might be having on what should otherwise be strictly objective government business. Many experts see this as a huge conflict of interest. Is she favoring his projects more than she should at this point?
John Hudak, a Brookings Institution scholar specializing in political influence in federal grants, told Politico,
“Where a Cabinet secretary is doing things that are going to help her husband get reelected, that starts to rise to the level of feeling more like corruption to the average American… I do think there are people who will see that as sort of ‘swamp behavior.”John Hudak
But a DOT spokesperson obviously contested this opinion, stating, “This online post intentionally misleads readers, misrepresenting the grant application process and disregarding key facts.” The statement also said:
“DOT’s Chief of Staff does not offer technical assistance to grant applications, and no state receives special treatment from the Department. Our team of dedicated career staff does an outstanding job evaluating hundreds of applications for these highly competitive grant programs, a thorough process developed well before this Administration.”DOT statement
McConnell’s office has commented on the issue as well, pointing out that the senator “regularly advocates for Kentuckians with Members of the Cabinet and agencies of the federal government” and continued:
“Senator McConnell recognizes that Kentucky has significant infrastructure projects that need to be replaced, repaired or upgraded… And that is why he has worked closely with the Department of Transportation, the Army Corps of Engineers, and other federal agencies to connect them with Kentuckians to hear first-hand about the importance of these projects.”McConnell’s spokesperson