2006.10.22: October 22, 2006: Headlines: Directors - Chao: Department of Labor: Kentucky.com: John Cheaves writes: Chao attends her husband's fund-raisers, chats with his donors and seeds her agency with his former aides

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Directors of the Peace Corps: Peace Corps Director Elaine Chao: Elaine Chao: Newest Stories: 2006.10.22: October 22, 2006: Headlines: Directors - Chao: Department of Labor: Kentucky.com: John Cheaves writes: Chao attends her husband's fund-raisers, chats with his donors and seeds her agency with his former aides

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John Cheaves writes: Chao attends her husband's fund-raisers, chats with his donors and seeds her agency with his former aides

John Cheaves writes: Chao attends her husband's fund-raisers, chats with his donors and seeds her agency with his former aides

"When it comes to workplace-related issues such as mine safety, the McConnell-Chao marriage presents an intriguing target for industry donors. At the Labor Department, Chao has taken what some reports say is a relaxed attitude toward the regulation of coal mines and an approach that labor unions perceive as hostile. Sometimes Chao achieves what her husband cannot in the Senate, such as a wage freeze her department instituted on certain farmworkers." Elaine Chao was the first Asian American to serve as director of the Peace Corps. She has served as the nation's Secretary of Labor since 2001.

John Cheaves writes: Chao attends her husband's fund-raisers, chats with his donors and seeds her agency with his former aides

Two for the money

When McConnell's pull fails, his Labor secretary wife fills in

By John Cheves

WASHINGTON - Millionaire coal magnate Bob Murray knew the name to drop in September 2002, when Mine Safety Health Administration inspectors confronted him about safety problems at his mines: Sen. Mitch McConnell.

Murray, a large man with a fierce temper, is a huge donor to Republican senators. McConnell, R-Ky., rose through the ranks by raising money for those senators. And McConnell is married to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, whose agency oversees MSHA.

Shouting at a table full of MSHA officials at their district office in Morgantown, W.Va., Murray said: "Mitch McConnell calls me one of the five finest men in America, and the last I checked, he was sleeping with your boss," according to notes of the meeting. "They," Murray added, pointing at two MSHA men, "are gone."

Murray, in a recent interview, denied that he referred to McConnell "sleeping with" Chao.

But nobody disputes that district manager Tim Thompson, at one end of Murray's jabbing finger and the man whose notes recorded the meeting, was transferred to another region, away from Murray's mines. He appealed the transfer for three years until he grudgingly took retirement in January. Labor Department officials refuse to discuss his transfer.

"The ironic part is, I'm a Republican," said Thompson, now a private mine-safety consultant. "But I don't think you should bring up politics at a meeting like that, involving safety."

When it comes to workplace-related issues such as mine safety, the McConnell-Chao marriage presents an intriguing target for industry donors. At the Labor Department, Chao has taken what some reports say is a relaxed attitude toward the regulation of coal mines and an approach that labor unions perceive as hostile.

Sometimes Chao achieves what her husband cannot in the Senate, such as a wage freeze her department instituted on certain farmworkers.

Chao attends her husband's fund-raisers, chats with his donors and seeds her agency with his former aides. Chief among them is Deputy Labor Secretary Steven Law, whose last job was helping McConnell tap donors -- Bob Murray included -- at the National Republican Senatorial Committee. They collected an impressive $187 million in four years there.

Chao declined to comment for this story. (Law, who did comment, said politics do not influence the Labor Department.)

McConnell recently said he neither asks Chao to favor his donors nor advises her on Labor Department activities. "She doesn't need any direction from me," he said. "In fact, I think that's a little bit insulting." It's hardly surprising they both push the Republican Party agenda in their jobs, he said.

"I'm a Republican, and I generally support what the Bush administration is trying to do," McConnell said. "She takes her orders from the White House."


Mirroring McConnell

Sometimes Chao picks up the ball and runs with it at the Labor Department when McConnell fails to reach a similar goal in the Senate.

For example, McConnell filed legislation for three years, starting in 1998, to curb the mandatory annual raise in wages of legal immigrant farmworkers under the government's H2A program. By 2001, the wage in Kentucky was $6.60 an hour, which struck some agricultural businesses as too high. (Agribusinesses have given McConnell more than $1 million for his campaigns -- out of $21 million from all donors over 22 years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.) But the bills kept failing.

In 2001, Chao ordered an indefinite delay in the release of an annual Labor Department wage report that triggered the farmworker raise. It was an insider move, not noticed by most Americans, but praised by McConnell's Republican congressional colleagues and business groups in letters obtained from Chao's office.

Farmworker Justice sued Chao on behalf of immigrant workers, and in 2002, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler ordered her to resume publishing the wage report in a timely fashion.

In 2002, McConnell filed an amendment to a corporate ethics bill that would force unions -- whom McConnell criticizes for supporting Democrats over Republicans -- to file far more detailed public reports on their spending. His amendment drew protest from unions, and four Republicans joined with Democrats to defeat it.

The next year, Chao announced stricter rules on unions' expense disclosures through the Labor Department's mandatory reporting system. Unions now must itemize every expense of $5,000 or more. The unions protested, but her order was upheld.

Richard Berman, a corporate lobbyist whose clients include McConnell donors, seized on the newly released financial data to launch a Web site, UnionFacts.com. The Web site -- like McConnell -- criticizes unions for giving more money to Democrats than Republicans. It also alleges criminal activities and urges union members to quit.

Berman's organization, The Center for Union Facts, found an ideological ally in Chao's Labor Department.

Berman and Chao both send aides to attend First Friday Labor Reform Working Group meetings on Capitol Hill, where Republican congressional staff and lobbyists brief each other on union policy. Labor Department e-mails obtained in June show Berman's staff and Chao's aides sharing union criticism, organizing lunches and promoting Berman's Web site within the department.

Berman declined to talk about his relationship to Chao, a spokeswoman said.

The watchdog group that obtained the e-mails, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said McConnell, a conservative Republican senator, can choose to side with corporations. But the labor secretary should not be so "cozy" with businesses, said Melanie Sloan, CREW president.

"The Labor Department is supposed to be there for the American worker," Sloan said.

$375,000 -- Mining industry donations to McConnell's Senate campaigns

$200,000 -- Chinese-American donations to McConnell from out of state

$8,000 -- First donation to McConnell from the Chao family
Reach John Cheves at (202) 383-6036 or at jcheves@herald-leader.com.

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