Grants for projects favored by McConnell raise ethical questions for Elaine Chao: report

Secretary Elaine ChaoElaine Lan ChaoChao met with more officials from Kentucky than any other state: report Ex-senior Trump administration official joins lobbying shop Industry spends big to sell safety of driverless cars MORE's Department of Transportation (DOT) designated a special liaison for grant applications in Kentucky, the home state of her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellFurious Republicans prepare to rebuke Trump on Syria Republicans wrestle with impeachment strategy Mattis warns 'ISIS will resurge' without U.S. pressure on Syria MORE (R), Politico reported Monday, facilitating awards totaling at least $78 million for projects favored by the GOP lawmaker.

The liaison, Todd Inman, reportedly stated in an email to McConnell's office that Chao had personally asked him to serve as an intermediary who could assist the senator and local Kentucky officials on grants with special significance to McConnell.

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Those grants included a highway-improvement project in a McConnell political stronghold that had been rejected twice previously, according to Politico.

Beginning in April 2017, Inman and Chao reportedly met annually with local officials from Owensboro, Ky., and discussed two projects of special importance: a plan to upgrade road connections to a commercial river port and a proposal to expedite reclassifying a local parkway as an interstate spur.

Inman, who now serves as Chao's chief of staff, emailed the river port authority on how to improve Owensboro's application after that 2017 meeting, the news outlet noted.

He also reportedly spoke over the phone with Al Mattingly, the chief executive of Daviess County, which includes Owensboro, who suggested to Politico that Inman was crucial in the approval process.

“Todd probably smoothed the way, I mean, you know, used his influence,” Mattingly told the outlet in an interview. “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,” he added of Chao and Inman, who reportedly had worked as McConnell’s advance man. “With a local guy, he has her ear 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You tell me.”

The circumstances surrounding the Owensboro grant, as well as another to Boone County, Ky., and Inman's designation as a special intermediary, which other states don't have, highlight ethical concerns with having a powerful Cabinet secretary married to the Senate’s majority leader, according to 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, a Brookings Institution scholar who has studied political influence in federal grant-making, told the news outlet.

"This online post intentionally misleads readers, misrepresenting the grant application process and disregarding key facts,” a DOT spokesperson told The Hill.

“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.”

Of 169 grants awarded during Chao’s tenure, the spokesperson noted, Kentucky received five.