Democrats say Trump pick to lead Education Dpt. owes Ohio $5.3 million
While Republicans and Democrats sparred over President-elect Donald Trump’s education secretary during her confirmation hearing Tuesday, state Republicans and Democrats engaged in a second battle over whether DeVos should pay $5.3 million in fines for state campaign finance violations.
Betsy DeVos, a Michigan-based businesswoman and philanthropist, has spurred a political clash between high profile Republicans and Democrats in the state, with the former saying she’ll be an effective advocate for school choice and the latter saying she’s refused to pay a nearly decade-old fine imposed on her by the Ohio Elections Commission.
The accusations surround All Children Matter, a political action committee founded by DeVos and her husband, billionaire Richard DeVos in Michigan in 2003. The organization, which advocated for school vouchers, spent some $870,000on state Republican candidates.
In 2008, the Ohio Elections Commission found the organization guilty of violating the $10,000 per candidate donation limit. The organization appealed the election commission’s action, but lost that appeal in 2010, and the Ohio Supreme Court declined to hear a second appeal. An attorney for DeVos told The Dispatch last year that DeVos was not found individually liable for any of the fines imposed on the group she once directed.
“Could you imagine if a student refused to pay something that they owed to a university or state?” asked Columbus-area Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Jefferson Twp.
She said the PAC demonstrated “contempt” for state campaign finance laws and “its refusal to pay these fines to the State of Ohio is disgraceful.” Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Niles, meanwhile, said he wanted to “raise the strongest possible objection” to DeVos’ nomination.
But despite the concern from Ohio Democrats, no senators at the Tuesday night confirmation hearing of DeVos brought up the issue.
They did, however, express concern about her political contributions, with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., asking her point-blank if she believed she would have been nominated were it not for her contributions. “I do think there would be that possibility,” she said, saying she “has worked very hard on behalf of parents and children.”
DeVos defended her record of supporting school choice, saying she felt strongly that parents should be able to have a variety of choices of what kind of schools to send their children to.
Among Ohio lawmakers, the fine was a key issue.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, wrote two letters – one this month and one last month - to DeVos urging her to pay the fine. In the December letter, signed by three other Democratic senators and Sanders, he wrote that the PAC’s “blatant disregard for the law” was “deeply troubling.” But “the PAC’s refusal to take responsibility and pay the fines is unconscionable.”
But State Rep. Andrew Brenner, R-Powell, chair of the House Education and Career Readiness Committee said DeVos is not responsible for the fines: She was not the treasurer, nor did she conduct the day-to-day activities or campaign decisions of the organization, he said.
“Mrs. DeVos has absolutely no legal obligation to pay this trumped up fine,” he wrote in a piece posted on Facebook on the issue.
Beyond All Children Matter, DeVos herself is a prolific political donor, giving $1.5 million to GOP causes and candidates since 1990. She gave Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, $7,800 over the course of his two Senate races, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. DeVos’ supporters say that her giving is akin not unlike the political donations that unions and other special interest groups give to Democrats as well.
In a statement, Portman did not say whether he’d vote for her confirmation, but called her a “well-respected education reform advocate.”
“I’m told she was not a party to this lawsuit and I look forward to hearing more from her during the confirmation process,” he said.
Former House Speaker John Boehner worked with DeVos on an initiative to create a voucher program in D.C. public schools. “Betsy DeVos understands the need for constant innovation in our education system,” he wrote Tuesday.
Mandel, meanwhile, in a Facebook post, called her a “frontline fixture in the fight to expand school options.” He is running against Brown, who will be up for re-election in 2018.
This article first appeared on the Dayton Daily News' website on January 17, 2017.