Where is Elaine Chao? US transport secretary took seven weeks of ‘private time’ in her first 14 months in office, investigation shows

‘Private’ time fills long stretches of the US transportation secretary’s daily calendar, according to POLITICO’s review of 14 months of records

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 October, 2018, 4:08pm
UPDATED : Friday, 05 October, 2018, 12:48am

This story is published in a content partnership with POLITICO. It was originally reported by Tara Snyder, Kathryn A. Wolfe and Beatrice Jin on on October 1, 2018.

US Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao’s day-to-day calendars are filled with large swaths of time blocked out as “private”, according to POLITICO’s analysis of newly released records – a pattern that several former DOT officials called unusual.

In total, Chao clocked more than 290 hours of appointments labelled private – the equivalent of about seven weeks’ holiday – during her first 14 months in US President Donald Trump’s Cabinet, based on a review of documents provided under the Freedom of Information Act.

That total does not include any private hours that occurred on nights, weekends, days marked as holiday or federal holidays.

Private hours per weekday

‘Private appointments’ on Chao’s calendar most often fall on Fridays. (POLITICO looked only at appointments falling between 9am and 6pm during the work week, excluding federal holidays or marked holiday days.)

The records, through the end of March 2018, offer a rare view of Chao’s activities as leader of Trump’s Department of Transportation, which has declined to provide routine access to her schedules.

The vast majority of Chao’s private appointments occurred on Fridays – frequently after lunchtime, and including nine Fridays when she marked at least five hours as private.

Her calendars showed a total of 10 hours of private time during the Thursday and Friday immediately before the administration released its most ambitious transport-related initiative, the president’s US$1.5 trillion infrastructure plan.

February 2017 through March 2018

Chao’s private time during business hours (Monday through Friday) for this period totalled more than 290 hours, equivalent to seven weeks of holiday.

A DOT spokesperson explained some of the “private” blocks as a security measure, designed to conceal Chao’s travel patterns, while others involved appointments that “range from doctor’s appointments to meeting with personal friends to tending to personal needs or regularly sharing meals with her husband,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

But rest assured, the department says, the secretary is working long and hard for the taxpayers.

“As everyone who has worked with her during her years as a Cabinet secretary knows well, the Secretary works very late into the night, early every morning and each and every weekend and has consistently done so while in office,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

By their nature, Cabinet members have highly irregular schedules, including out-of-town travel, work through lunch and dinner, pre-breakfast meetings and activities at night and on weekends – and individual secretaries may have different approaches to the job.

Chao is no stranger to this world, having previously served in a string of senior federal posts including eight years as President George W. Bush’s Labour secretary.

But six former DOT officials who worked closely with previous Transportation secretaries told POLITICO that the amount of private time during work hours delineated on Chao’s calendar is atypical.

“That seems to be quite a lot,” said Beth Osborne, who was deputy assistant secretary and then acting assistant secretary for transport policy under Obama administration Transportation Secretaries Ray LaHood and Anthony Foxx.

She said that during working hours, LaHood and Foxx “were travelling or they were taking meetings from constituents or with members of Congress or whomever, and their days were pretty full up.”

Several former DOT officials said that while the previous two secretaries sometimes took some family time – one was the father of young children and the other a grandfather – it was very occasional and they regularly worked evenings and weekends.

One former DOT official who worked closely with a Transportation secretary said the sheer amount of private appointments on Chao’s calendar suggests an attempt to hide her activities rather than truly private time.

“Given the tremendous amount of work and constant crises and challenges that come up at DOT, I find it highly unlikely Secretary Chao is really taking this much private time,” said the former official, who requested anonymity because of ongoing business before the department.

“It certainly appears that they have just tried to over-redact meetings they would prefer the public not know about.”

Similarly, another former Obama administration official who was involved with scheduling for secretaries said it “sounds like they have really stretched the definition” of a private appointment.

To err on the conservative side, POLITICO’s analysis of Chao’s private time looked only at appointments falling between 9am and 6pm on weekdays, excluding federal holidays.

But taking the records at face value, she has devoted a lot of hours to such appointments, even during what would appear to be busy times for her department.

A closer look at one week

Chao took 11 hours of private appointments during the week before the roll-out of Trump’s US$1.5 trillion infrastructure plan and the release of DOT’s budget.

One example is the week before the administration unveiled two initiatives early this year with major implications for Chao’s department: Trump’s US$1.5 trillion infrastructure plan and the White House’s fiscal 2019 budget request, which called for US$76.5 billion for DOT.

Those two announcements arrived on Monday, February 12.

During the work week before that, Chao’s calendar listed a total of 11 hours of private appointments falling between 9am and 6pm, including most of Thursday and the vast majority of Friday.

The calendar lists over a dozen hours of work-related commitments during that same period, not including dinner with Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump on the night of Monday, February 5, and an hourlong White House briefing related to Latina  Style Magazine that Wednesday.

Of course, unscheduled time can still be work time, and secretaries frequently have desk work to do in addition to their meetings.

Foxx sometimes scheduled “office hours” to get work done outside of meetings, but those instances were rare, said one former senior DOT official who worked closely with him, who requested anonymity because of ongoing relationships with the agency.

Kathleen Clark, a professor of legal ethics at Washington University in St Louis, said the volume of “private” business on Chao’s calendar raises questions about whether DOT is fully accounting for all her official duties.

“You could have the concern about whether or not the public is getting a full day’s work out of Secretary Chao,” she said.

“The other concern is that the government could be using that term to obscure … to make the public records request useless, or not as useful as it might otherwise be.”