Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao assigned a special liaison to help with grant applications from Kentucky, the state of her husband, Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. No other state received a designated liaison or other such special consideration.

Chao, who was chosen to head the Department of Transportation (DOT) by President Donald Trump, reportedly assigned her chief of staff Todd Inman to specifically assist Kentucky and Sen. McConnell with DOT grants for projects that the senator favored, according to an email from Inman to McConnell’s office. One grant that was specifically mentioned was a highway-improvement project located in one of McConnell’s political bastions. This same project had previously been rejected twice for grant applications.

Inman was reportedly in contact with officials from Owensboro, Kentucky, a McConnell political stronghold, about how to best apply for a federal DOT grant. He also directly called Al Mattingly, the chief executive of Daviess County, in which Owensboro is located, to discuss ways to improve the application. In an interview, Mattingly implied that Inman was instrumental in the application process and in getting the grant approved. “Todd probably smoothed the way, I mean, you know, used his influence,” Mattingly told Politico. “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?” He then went on to say, “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.”

With McConnell up for reelection in 2020, many view the special treatment given to his state by his wife as unethical, even in the face of pushback from the DOT. “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,’” said Brookings Institution scholar John Hudak.

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Contrary to the DOT’s assertion that it hands out grants based on need, one former official said, “We have a merit-based process that we essentially ignore, [and] it’s really detrimental to meeting national transportation needs and having people feel like the process is worth engaging in.”

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