DeVos set to answer senators' education questions

Melissa Nann Burke, and Jonathan Oosting

Washington Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos is set to defend her qualifications Tuesday before a Senate committee, where she is expected to face questions about her activism for school choice and her millions of dollars in political donations to conservative causes and lawmakers.

Regarding one of the donations, the west Michigan billionaire plans to resubmit a required disclosure form to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions after omitting a $125,000 contribution she made to a Michigan anti-union group in 2012. A spokesman said it was a clerical oversight.

Republican President-elect Donald Trump picked DeVos of the Grand Rapids area for the top education job in November.

U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, led a letter in support of DeVos to be delivered to committee leadership Tuesday. It was signed by 24 members of Congress, including the nine Republicans in Michigan’s delegation.

“She disrupted the status quo in the Michigan education system, helping to reform school districts where too many at-risk children were not receiving the kind of high quality education they deserved,” the lawmakers wrote.

“We know that she is up to the challenge of ensuring our children are prepared to compete and thrive in a global environment. While differences in policy positions are to be respected, they do not constitute a legitimate reason to deny Betsy DeVos’ nomination.”

But teachers unions and others worry that the cabinet-level post would give DeVos a national platform to undermine public schools. Critics say her agenda for choice and alternative public charter schools has demonstrated little regard for quality control or transparency and is in part to lame for a decline in student achievement levels in Michigan compared with other states.

The Senate committee was to hold its DeVos hearing last week but changed it to 5 p.m. Tuesday “to accommodate the Senate schedule,” according to a joint statement by Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, and ranking Democrat Patty Murray of Washington.

The postponement followed urging by Democrats to delay hearings for Cabinet nominees until the Office of Government Ethics completed its review of nominees’ financial holdings and potential conflicts of interest.

DeVos’ paperwork is still under review by the ethics office and had not been submitted to the committee as of Monday.

Murray told the New York Times last week she had concerns about “missing information” on other financial disclosure forms that DeVos filed with the Senate that are not public. Murray said she and Alexander had requested additional information from the nominee.

“This is a candidate with extremely complicated financial dealings,” Murray told the Times. “We have to know, if there are conflicts of interests, how those are going to be resolved. If we don’t have that, it’s incumbent on all of us to say we cannot vote for that.”

The Washington Post first reported on the omitted political contribution Friday, confirming an analysis by American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic super political action committee.

DeVos spokesman Greg McNeilly called the omission “a clerical error that will be corrected,” noting the contribution was previously disclosed to the public through campaign finance reports submitted to the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office.

“It’s pretty standard procedure for any of these nominees — you have things that need updating,” McNeilly said. “That will be the case. There will be additional updates to the form.”

State records show DeVos made a $125,000 donation to the Protecting Michigan Taxpayers ballot committee on Oct. 19, 2012. The committee opposed several statewide ballot proposals in 2012, primarily a union-backed initiative that would have enshrined collective bargaining rights in the Michigan Constitution.

Seven other DeVos family members combined to give the committee another $1.5 million on the same day, according to Secretary of State records. The powerful West Michigan family often coordinates contributions for maximum effect.

Michigan voters ultimately rejected the ballot proposal, which was backed by powerful Michigan unions including the United Auto Workers.

The Trump transition team did not respond to a request for comment. A spokeswoman told The Washington Post that officials “appreciate this being called to our attention” and that they would update the disclosure submission.

McNeilly said DeVos will resubmit the form before the committee votes on her nomination Jan. 24. She is not immediately filing a new form because she expects lawmakers to pose follow-up questions after Tuesday’s hearing that may lead to additional updates, he said.

“From top to bottom, the Trump transition team has been rushing through the nomination process and hiding information from the public, so it’s no surprise that Betsy DeVos has omitted a huge anti-union donation that targeted American workers and their right to organize,” Jessica Mackler, president of American Bridge, said in a statement.

“Trump and his cabinet of predatory billionaires are set to enrich themselves and their friends at the expense of American workers and families and will stop at nothing to cover their tracks.”

A spokeswoman for Alexander said he does not have concerns about DeVos’ paperwork.

“The committee process has always allowed nominees to make clarifications and updates to the forms they submit — and it’s not unusual for the committee to receive updated answers or corrections for oversights,” she said.

American Bridge alleges DeVos also failed to report $69,700 in federal contributions she made between 2012 and 2016, along with another $6,800 to Michigan candidates. McNeilly said DeVos did not omit those donations, suggesting any additional discrepancy was the result of reporting variations by receiving committees.

Her committee disclosure form lists more than 400 other contributions spanning nearly 10 pages, highlighting her reach as a GOP mega donor.

DeVos reported more than $1.2 million in contributions to education groups that advocate for school choice policies at both the national and state level, including $970,000 to the American Federation for Children and $235,000 to the Michigan-based Great Lakes Education Project.

DeVos served on the board of directors for both advocacy groups until Trump picked her to be his education secretary nominee.

DeVos, a former two-time chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party, noted in her disclosure form that she resigned as chair of the Windquest Group, the Grand Rapids investment firm she started with husband, Dick. She also stepped down from the couple’s foundation, which recently disclosed $11.6 million in donations in 2015, including $357,000 to education reform causes.