FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — A trade group representing Kentucky's coal industry defended Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell on Friday after a published report said his wife is a board member of an organization that has spent $50 million to close coal-fired power plants.
Yahoo News reported that Elaine Chao, McConnell's wife and the labor secretary under President George W. Bush, sits on the board of Bloomberg Philanthropies, a charity founded by former New York City mayor and media mogul Michael Bloomberg.
Chao joined the board a year after Bloomberg Philanthropies announced in 2011 a four-year, $50 million commitment to the Sierra Club for its "Beyond Coal" campaign, which has the goal to "retire one-third of the nation's aging coal fleet by 2020," according to the group's website.
"I believe it is important to recognize that Bloomberg's contribution was made well before Secretary Elaine Chao began her service as a board member of Bloomberg Philanthropies in April 2012," Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said in a statement.
The United Mine Workers of America, which endorsed Grimes on Saturday, said in a statement that Chao is free to join any board she chooses but added: "One would think that, as the spouse of a Kentucky politician, she would choose more carefully when it comes to taking a leadership role in an organization that had recently invested in the destruction of the American coal industry and the jobs of American coal miners."
The union represents about 2 percent of the state's active coal miners, but has roughly 10,000 retired members in Kentucky. The Kentucky Coal Association has 23 member companies and 150 associate members, which it says represents about 90 percent of the state's coal production.
Bloomberg Philanthropies made a $25 million payment as part of that donation in 2012, the year that Chao joined the board.
Howard Wolfson, a spokesman for Bloomberg, said Chao was not involved in the decision to give the money to the Sierra Club and had nothing to do with the group's continuing to fund the project.
A spokeswoman for the McConnell campaign did not respond to questions about whether Chao knew about the donation when she joined the board.
Declining demand for coal has led to the loss of more than 7,000 jobs in the eastern Kentucky coalfields since January 2012. Both McConnell, the Senate minority leader, and Democratic candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes frequently talk about their support of the coal industry and have denounced proposed Environmental Protection Agency emission standards that would limit utilities' ability to replace aging coal-fired power plants.
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