Politics

Trump Taps McConnell Brother-in-Law, Big GOP Donor, for Labor Post

Tech entrepreneur nominated to lead Labor Department pension agency

A brother-in-law of Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao has been nominated for a position in the Labor Department. She is shown here testifying as her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., looks on during her confirmation hearing in 2017. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Family connections can help when you’re applying for a new job — especially in Washington.

Just ask one of President Donald Trump’s latest executive branch nominees, who is married to the sister of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who’s married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. 

Trump announced this week that tech entrepreneur Gordon Hartogensis is his pick to lead the Department of Labor’s Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, which insures private-sector pension plans for retired Americans.

The PBGC covers the pension plans of nearly 40 million retired Americans should those plans tank and retirees stop receiving benefits. The agency provided monthly paychecks to roughly 900,000 pensioners in 2017. 

From his résumé, it is unclear what retirement fund experience Hartogensis, a Stanford graduate with a bachelor’s degree in computer science who has worked as a technology logistics executive since 1993, brings to the agency — beyond managing his family’s trust since 2011.

Other expertise

But the administration is banking on Hartogensis’ “business skills” to “put the PBGC back on a firm financial footing” and recalibrate its balance sheet, the White House press office said in an email.

The agency’s financial deficit has doubled since fiscal 2013.

In its nomination announcement this week, the White House touted Hartogensis’ credentials as “an investor and technology sector leader with experience managing financial equities, bonds, private placements, and software development.”

Hartogensis, 47, did not respond to a request for comment left on his cell phone Tuesday. 

Kendra Stewart, vice president of the American Society for Public Administration, suggested the nominee’s family connections were stronger than his other qualifications.  

“In general, a large number of presidential nominations at this level tend to come with either more direct related experience from the private sector or with a fair amount of federal government experience. It doesn’t appear that Mr. Hartogensis has either,” she said. 

“What he does seem to have is good political connections with someone who matters — the majority leader,” she said.

Hartogensis has donated $50,000 to the Republican Party of Kentucky since 2007, including the maximum $10,000 per calendar year in McConnell’s two most recent re-election cycles, according to OpenSecrets.org.

He also maxed out his contributions to McConnell’s primary and general election campaigns in 2008 and 2014 — $9,600 in total.

Other priorities

Trump could be tapping a relative of McConnell, arguably Washington’s most influential lawmaker, for a cushy administrative post to curry favor with the Kentucky Republican ahead of a busy docket of higher-profile nominations and pending legislation such as the farm bill reauthorization, fiscal 2019 appropriations and a sweeping infrastructure package, Stewart suggested.

“If President Trump is committed to passing more of his legislative agenda beyond tax reform then he is in need of the support of Republican leadership in Congress. This could be a good step in that direction,“ she said of the Hartogensis pick.

Chao’s Transportation Department and McConnell’s office referred inquiries about the nomination to the White House.

The annual director’s salary at the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation is $174,500.

The current director, Thomas Reeder, was the benefits tax counsel in the Treasury Department’s Office of Tax Policy from 2005 to 2009. He later joined the Office of Chief Counsel at the IRS as an executive.

Hartogensis is expected to go before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee before the chamber can vote to confirm him.

Trump proved in the early days of his presidency he is not averse to choosing unorthodox nominees to lead entire Cabinet departments.

Ben Carson, his secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was a neurosurgeon and political commentator with no experience in the real estate or development sectors before he was pegged for the job.

And Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had no prior experience in the public education realm — as a student, parent or administrator — before taking command of the department charged with running the American public school system.

Hartogensis’ nomination might seem like, in the president’s words, “small potatoes” compared to those higher-level posts.

“I think this appointment raises the question — is this good old-fashioned political patronage?” Stewart said. “Or is this the president attempting to deliver on his promise of draining the swamp by appointing people outside the system?”

Watch: McConnell, Schumer Disagree on Rule Change Pertaining to Judge Nominations

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