A Politico article published Monday calls into question the ethics of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Elaine Chao and recent grants issued to Owensboro.
The article focuses on Chao — who is married to McConnell — and her chief of staff J. Todd Inman, an Owensboro native who now advises McConnell and other Kentucky officials on DOT grants.
Politico, a political-based media company, criticized Chao in the article by saying she prioritized grant applications for McConnell’s political allies — namely, Mayor Tom Watson and Daviess County Judge-Executive Al Mattingly.
According to Politico, Inman and Chao met annually with officials in Owensboro, where they discussed discussed two projects of special importance — a plan to widen Industrial Drive (Kentucky 331) and a proposal to expedite reclassifying the William H. Natcher Parkway to Interstate-165.
The $11.52 million BUILD (Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development) grant for Industrial Drive was awarded to Owensboro after the two previous applications were denied.
Earlier this year McConnell spoke to the community at the Owensboro Riverport Authority about the recent developmental and economic successes due to federal grant funding the city and county had received.
“I’m the only one of the four congressional leaders who’s either not from New York or California. My job is to look out for the Middle America, and there’s one particular state in Middle America that I have particular affection for–not surprising,” McConnell told Politico. “That’s an example of how Kentucky having a majority leader of the Senate benefits you. We level the playing field, and it gives us an advantage.”
Mattingly and Watson were quoted by Politico in support of the media company’s statements that Inman was instrumental in the grant-giving process, using his influence at the local level.
“Todd probably smoothed the way, I mean, you know, used his influence,” Mattingly said to 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?”
Politico details Owensboro’s federal grant requests dating back to July 2005 when McConnell secured $40 million to overhaul downtown. Local officials turned to federal funding again with the Industrial Drive project.
“The only money that’s still being circulated comes from Washington,” Watson told Politico.
Owensboro Times was unable to reach Watson for comment regarding the Politico article.
Politico does point out there was nothing illegal in awarding Owensboro the grants, but stated the federal leaders acted unethically through political bias. However, McConnell said he’s proud to help his home state succeed by means of his political prowess.
“As Senate Majority Leader and a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, I am able to ensure that these issues — both large and small — are part of the national discussion. Kentucky continues to punch above its weight in Washington, and I am proud to be a strong voice for my constituents in the Senate,” McConnell told Politico in an emailed statement.
After reading Politico’s article, Mattingly said his interview was never meant to allude to any wrongdoing on the Senator’s part.
“My comments in no way implied Senator McConnell did anything he shouldn’t have done. My comments in no way had any influence on what McConnell’s done,” Mattingly said. “The BUILD grant had been in the works for two to three years, and we lost it. Based on our size and population, we finally got that grant, and we earned it.”
Mattingly said the BUILD grant stands on its own merits, and that he himself worked tirelessly to ensure Owensboro would be awarded the $11 million for its riverport.
“Boone County just received $67 million–what’s that about? It’s about the same things — economic development and safety,” Mattingly said. “That money for the riverport is to make the highway safer for traffic to get through. I think it’s legal and ethical to lobby for my community, and I don’t get one red cent for it.”
Owensboro Times could not reach Inman for comment. A DOT spokesman said Inman’s statement to Politico would be all that was released.
“It’s an honor to work at the Department of Transportation, especially as this Administration is prioritizing infrastructure investments and meeting with people from all 50 states to discuss their needs,” Inman’s statement said. “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.”
A DOT spokesman said 169 grants have been awarded during the current presidential administration and only five went to Kentucky.