Miller Presses Chao to Waive Diplomatic Immunity for Official

Posted April 17, 2008 at 3:32pm

House Education and Labor Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) is pressing Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to pursue a waiver of diplomatic immunity for the former head of a trade commission accused of misspending the commission’s funds.

The former official, Mark Knouse, a U.S. citizen who was appointed by Chao to serve as the executive director of the Secretariat of the Commission for Labor Cooperation, an international commission created as a sidebar to the North American Free Trade Agreement to study labor issues arising from the trade deal. At the time of his appointment, Knouse was a lobbyist for Pittsburgh business groups and married to an assistant in Chao’s executive office.

Chao can make nominations to the CLC, even though it is not part of the Labor Department.

During his tenure at the commission, Knouse registered as a lobbyist before the Pennsylvania legislature and reported that the labor commission was a client. Knouse hired several friends and acquaintances as contractors and researchers, and the commission reimbursed him for thousands of dollars in travel and entertainment expenses, mostly with Pennsylvania officials.

A report issued last week by the Labor Department Inspector General concluded that the CLC “could not demonstrate that contracts and vendor payments totaling approximately $1 million were used to support the CLC mission or that it actually received the goods and services for which it paid.” The IG also questioned Knouse’s travel expenses, as well as travel and hospitality costs for CLC staff totalling thousands of dollars.

But the IG said it could not refer its findings for criminal investigation because Knouse “as the Executive Director of the Secretariat, was entitled to diplomatic immunity from prosecution, and the CLC did not respond to the [IG’s] request to waive this immunity.” The IG also reported that the Labor Department Solicitor raised the issue with the State Department, but ultimately suggested that the IG pursue the matter directly with State. “We do not believe it is appropriate or necessary for the OIG to contact the State Department directly regarding this issue,” the report concluded.

In his letter to Chao Thursday, Miller asked Chao — who sits on the CLC Ministerial Council — to detail what steps she has taken to secure a waiver of Knouse’s diplomatic immunity. In a statement, Miller said Chao “appointed a crony” to head the CLC Secretariat, and that failure to act on the waiver could create “the perception that she is shielding an alleged criminal, to whom she has personal ties, from accountability under the law.”

A Labor Department spokesman did not return a call requesting comment on Miller’s letter.