Before the Ping May, a rusty cargo vessel, could disembark from the port of Santa Marta en route to the Netherlands in late August, Colombian inspectors boarded the boat and made a discovery. Hidden in the ship’s chain locker, amidst its load of coal bound for Europe, were approximately 40 kilograms, or about ninety pounds, of cocaine. A Colombian Coast Guard official told The Nation that there is an ongoing investigation.
The seizure of the narcotics shipment in the Caribbean port occurred far away from Kentucky, the state in which Senator Mitch McConnell is now facing a career-defining election. But the Republican Senate minority leader has the closest of ties to the owner of the Ping May, the vessel containing the illicit materials: the Foremost Maritime Corporation, a firm founded and owned by McConnell’s in-laws, the Chao family.
Though Foremost has played a pivotal role in McConnell’s life, bestowing the senator with most of his personal wealth and generating thousands in donations to his campaign committees, the drug bust went unnoticed in Kentucky, where every bit of McConnell-related news has generated fodder for the campaign trail. That’s because, like many international shipping companies, Chao’s firm is shrouded from public view, concealing its identity and limiting its legal liability through an array of tax shelters and foreign registrations. Registered through a limited liability company in the Marshall Islands, the Ping May flies the Liberian flag.
Mitch McConnell and his wife Elaine Chao with James Chao (image: ElaineLChao.com)
McConnell’s ties to the Chaos go back to the late 1980s, when James Chao began donating to the senator. In 1993, McConnell married James’s daughter, Elaine Chao, a Republican activist and former Reagan administration official who would later serve as secretary of labor in the George W. Bush cabinet. James Chao emigrated to the United States from Taiwan, and founded the Foremost Maritime Corporation upon settling in New York. The company has grown significantly over the years, from acting as maritime agent during the Vietnam War to controlling a fleet of approximately sixteen dry-bulk cargo ships in operation today.
Foremost acts as a shipping agent, purchasing vessels made primarily in China and coordinating shipment of commodities. Records reviewed by The Nation reveal that Foremost transports corn, chemicals and other goods to cities throughout the world. The company has offices in New York and Hong Kong.
Some of the goods shipped by Foremost echo themes of the McConnell campaign. At a Young Professionals Association of Louisville event this month, McConnell stressed his opposition to carbon dioxide limits imposed by the federal government that would impact the domestic coal market. He argued that such efforts would be fruitless given the role of coal in developing countries and the rising coal trade. Foremost ships routinely transport coal from ports in Australia and Colombia, countries with cheap coal, for export to Asia and Europe.