Reporting Raises Questions About Washington's Potential Political Conflicts Of Interest

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Elaine Chao (center) listens to her husband Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., during her confirmation hearing to be the next U.S. secretary of transportation, Jan. 11, 2017. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Elaine Chao (center) listens to her husband Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., during her confirmation hearing to be the next U.S. secretary of transportation, Jan. 11, 2017. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

With Meghna Chakrabarti

Washington's lobbying-as-usual culture is getting pushback inside and outside of the Beltway. We look at what’s motivating that.


Eric Lipton, investigative reporter for The New York Times covering the Trump administration. He has won or been on teams that won three Pulitzer Prizes for journalism, including one for reporting about lobbying of state attorneys general and Congress in 2015. (@EricLiptonNYT)

Kathleen Clark, professor at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Law, working in the areas of legal and government ethics. (@clarkkathleen)

Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, a nonprofit ethics group focused on limiting the influence of corporate interests in government. (@Public_Citizen)

From The Reading List

New York Times: "A ‘Bridge’ to China, and Her Family’s Business, in the Trump Cabinet" — "Ms. Chao has no formal affiliation or stake in her family’s shipping business, Foremost Group. But she and her husband, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have received millions of dollars in gifts from her father, James, who ran the company until last year. And Mr. McConnell’s re-election campaigns have received more than $1 million in contributions from Ms. Chao’s extended family, including from her father and her sister Angela, now Foremost’s chief executive, who were both subjects of the State Department’s ethics question.

"Over the years, Ms. Chao has repeatedly used her connections and celebrity status in China to boost the profile of the company, which benefits handsomely from the expansive industrial policies in Beijing that are at the heart of diplomatic tensions with the United States, according to interviews, industry filings and government documents from both countries.

"Now, Ms. Chao is the top Trump official overseeing the American shipping industry, which is in steep decline and overshadowed by its Chinese competitors.

"Her efforts on behalf of the family business — appearing at promotional events, joining her father in interviews with Chinese-language media — have come as Foremost has interacted with the Chinese state to a remarkable degree for an American company."

Vox: "Elaine Chao and Mitch McConnell’s potential conflict of interest, explained" — "While referencing infrastructure projects this past April, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made a seemingly charming quip about his personal life. 'My roommate has been involved in this issue for a couple of years,' he said, when asked about a potential funding package to overhaul the country’s crumbling roads and bridges. The 'roommate' he’s referring to is, of course, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who also happens to be his wife.

"Although this reference was intended as a joke in his April remarks, a recent Politico story casts the effect of their personal ties in a potentially more nefarious light.

"The report, from Tucker Doherty and Tanya Snyder, notes that Chao has overseen the allocation of nearly $80 million in federal grants to Kentucky during her time as transportation secretary, designating a special intermediary to help the state navigate this funding process, a resource that few states have. It raises questions about whether Chao — who oversees funding for everything from highway construction to port development at the Department of Transportation — was treating Kentucky differently due to her relationship with McConnell.

"DOT refuted such implications in the piece, though ethics experts note that Chao and McConnell’s relationship make such grant allocations — and concerns about if there was favoritism involved — especially murky.

"What’s more, the concerns about Chao and ethical impropriety isn’t limited to these grants. Just last week, a New York Times story highlighted how Chao had attempted to include members of her family, who own a major shipping company, in meetings with Chinese officials that she was set to attend as a Cabinet secretary. Those meetings were ultimately canceled in the wake of concerns voiced by some US government officials, though another trip was scheduled at a later date."

NPR: "Ted Cruz And Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Team Up To Ban Lawmakers From Lobbying" — "'Let's make a deal,' said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
'You're on,' agreed Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

"The two lawmakers who have often been at odds found common ground in a place that often highlights polarizing opinions: Twitter. That's where Cruz and Ocasio-Cortez vowed to set aside their differences and work on new lobbying restrictions for lawmakers. Now an unlikely coalition is forming around their joint effort.

"It started when Ocasio-Cortez tweeted Thursday morning that members of Congress shouldn't be allowed to become corporate lobbyists.

"'At minimum there should be a long wait period,' she wrote. Ocasio-Cortez cited a statistic from Public Citizen, in which the advocacy group reported that among former Congress members who move to jobs outside of politics, nearly 60% start lobbying or otherwise influencing federal policy.

"It didn't take long for Cruz to chime in.

"'Here's something I don't say often: on this point, I AGREE' with Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz stated. He went on to say that he has long called for a lifetime ban on former members of Congress becoming lobbyists."

Open Secrets: "Recent ex-members of Congress head to K Street as ‘shadow lobbying’ escalates" — "What do members do after they leave Congress? Here’s a hint: Many take a swing through the revolving door.

"Nearly two dozen former members of the 115th Congress have already found jobs at lobbying firms, according to OpenSecrets’ Revolving Door database.

"Lobbying is a natural next step for recently-departed members who spent years cultivating relationships with their colleagues and interest groups.

"Of the 23 members-turned-policy advisors, only two — former Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Lamar Smith (R-Texas) of Akin Gump — registered to lobby as of May 30. While former House members must wait one year before lobbying their chamber’s ex-colleagues, they often engage in so-called shadow lobbying, participating in activities that might be considered lobbying but declining to register under the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA)."

Grace Tatter produced this hour for broadcast.

This program aired on June 12, 2019.



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