10/15/2019 18:10 EDT | Updated 10/17/2019 15:29 EDT

Oregon Democrat Steps Up Oversight Of Trump Official Amid Criticism He's Too Lax

Rep. Peter DeFazio wants answers about Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao’s possible bias toward Kentucky -- her powerful husband's home state.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), center, has called for the Department of Transportation's internal watchdog to look into Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao's alleged bias toward Kentucky.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat who runs the House panel with jurisdiction over the Department of Transportation, on Tuesday called for an internal investigation of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao’s alleged favoritism toward the state of Kentucky. 

Meeting with Kentucky officials constituted 25% of Chao’s meetings with local officials from all 50 states in her first 14 months on the job, Politico reported last week. Chao is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, raising the prospect that she uses her perch as a Cabinet secretary in President Donald Trump’s administration to benefit her husband’s state.

DeFazio, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, wrote a letter to the Department of Transportation’s inspector general demanding an inquiry into her conduct.

“I would expect Secretary Chao to meet with individuals from her home state more regularly than other states, but the sheer volume … is troubling,” DeFazio told Politico on Tuesday.

DeFazio also noted that the Twitter account for McConnell’s 2020 reelection campaign publicized the initial Politico story on alleged Kentucky favoritism, pointing to it as an explicit benefit of his Senate berth.

A spokesperson for the Department of Transportation reacted dismissively to the letter.

“These allegations were first raised by left wing advocacy groups and hashed out in the media, and the Department has previously fully responded to them,” the spokesperson said. “They are politically motivated and intended to waste time. While the Department will always be cooperative and responsive to appropriate requests, DOT looks forward to a prompt and final resolution of these questions.”

DeFazio, first elected in 1986 in a district that now leans just barely Democratic, is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. He is a co-sponsor of House Democrats’ single-payer health care legislation and has been especially outspoken in favor of liberal priorities like a financial transactions tax. 

But HuffPost reported on Friday that Doyle Canning, a community organizer who has launched a primary challenge to DeFazio from the left, has made DeFazio’s allegedly light oversight of the Trump administration a central part of her case against the veteran congressman.

Canning declined to take credit for DeFazio’s decision to press for an inspector general’s probe into Chao, pointing instead to the pressure of district-based progressive activists with whom she is aligned. “The movement is getting stronger by the day,” she said.

She also was less than impressed with DeFazio’s letter, calling it “an example of not using the full powers vested in the United States Congress by the constitution to perform oversight.”

Those who agree with Canning’s critique of DeFazio’s record as a committee head ― including Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Washington-based, anti-corruption Revolving Door Project ― cite the slow pace of the panel’s investigation into Boeing for the sale of faulty jets that led to the crashes of two commercial airliners. The critics fault the committee for not relying on subpoenas to gather information.

But DeFazio’s committee staff insists that relying on voluntary document disclosure from Boeing and the Federal Aviation Authority, which Chao oversees, rather than using subpoenas has actually allowed the panel to collect documents more rapidly.

Hauser has also called for the committee to compel Chao herself to testify about the federal government’s role in the Boeing disaster, her alleged favoritism toward Kentucky and her apparent use of public appearances to promote her father’s shipping company.

Hauser told HuffPost on Tuesday that DeFazio’s letter should be the start of even more aggressive measures against Chao.

“Hopefully this letter is followed up quickly by subpoenas and a full-fledged aggressive approach to oversight, including making clear the committee’s interest in hearing from whistleblowers and willingness to protect them,” he said. “In terms of substance and politics, there is nothing to be lost and much to be gained by investigating Chao’s department vigorously.”

This article has been updated with a comment from the Department of Transportation. 

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