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DeVos pins ‘clerical error’ on fraudster who bilked mom

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos was unknowingly and wrongly listed as a board member of the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation by a trusted adviser to her mother who later admitted to swindling the elderly heiress, a DeVos family spokesman said Thursday.

Democrats pressed DeVos, the Cabinet pick of Republican President-elect Donald Trump, about the board position Tuesday in her testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions. They noted the Prince foundation had donated to Focus on the Family, a Colorado-based group that has reportedly advocated for gay “conversion therapy.”

DeVos, a school choice advocate and Republican mega-donor from Grand Rapids, denied working for the foundation even though she has been named in state and federal paperwork for more than a decade, calling it a “clerical error.”

Under questioning, she said she has “never believed” in conversion therapy, which is the controversial practice of using spiritual counseling or psychological therapy in an attempt to change an individual’s sexual orientation away from homosexuality.

Family spokesman Greg McNeilly elaborated Thursday, telling The News that listing her and siblings as foundation board members was one of many actions taken by Robert Haveman, a former adviser to Elsa Prince, that the family did not know about until recently.

Haveman was sentenced to 42 months in federal prison last year after pleading guilty to wire fraud and money laundering after he admitted to stealing more than $16 million from the Elsa D. Prince Living Trust between 1999 and 2015.

“It was erroneously reported by somebody who no longer has responsibilities with the family for reasons noted by a federal court,” McNeilly said of the board listings.

DeVos learned she had been listed as a Prince foundation board member last week after questions were raised why she did not include the position on the disclosure form she submitted to the committee, McNeilly said.

State records show the foundation filed a “certificate of correction” with the Michigan Department of Licensing and Affairs on Jan. 13, just four days before DeVos’ nomination hearing. The updated 2006 document no longer lists her as a board member.

The original paperwork listed Haveman as the “resident agent” for the foundation. A federal prisoner tracker indicates he is currently housed at a minimum security facility in West Virginia.

Gun criticism lingers

DeVos has faced increased scrutiny over various answers in Tuesday’s hearing.

She has become the butt of late night talk show jokes for responding to a question about whether guns should be allowed in schools by referencing an earlier conversation with a senator about a Wyoming school that has perimeter fences to ward off grizzly bears. DeVos also said local communities should decide whether guns should be allowed in schools.

“I would imagine there’s a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies,” she said when asked if guns belonged in schools, referencing the school in Wyoming.

McNeilly said he understands why comedians and critics have jumped on the DeVos comment but defended DeVos’ broader argument about the need for local rules to reflect the unique aspects of local communities.

“The notion that states ought to be setting the gun laws is absolutely valid and accurate, and that was the point she was trying to make, maybe inarticulately,” he said.

But some of the post-hearing focus began to shift to DeVos’ connection to the family foundation and her views on gay rights.

U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, the New Hampshire Democrat who pressed DeVos on the foundation documents in committee, called her “clerical error” defense “concerning to say the least” in a Wednesday email to CNN.

“It is hard to believe that Mrs. DeVos could be listed as vice president of the Prince Foundation ... and yet have no involvement with, or knowledge of, the millions of dollars in donations made to anti-LGBTQ groups that promote intolerance,” Hassan wrote.

DeVos defended

McNeilly, a longtime family spokesman who is openly gay, said DeVos has never supported conversion therapy. He said he thinks that as the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community learns more about her, they will find somebody “who is supportive” on many issues.

“She supports the dignity of every individual and is for, as she noted in her hearing, equality,” McNeilly said. “I think one of the things this process is allowing is a clarification of that record.”

In comments at a December reception of Equality Michigan, McNeilly said DeVos stood up for him at a time when his sexual orientation wasn’t widely known. An unnamed state senator threatened to expose his sexual orientation more than a decade ago, he said, but DeVos asked for the senator’s home phone number. McNeilly said he never heard from the senator again.

“I don’t know what was said, but it was effective,” he said in December.

The powerful DeVos family has an extensive paper trail of donations to groups that opposed gay marriage initiatives, but McNeilly said many contributions were in the distant past or made by other family members.

The Prince Foundation donated $450,000 to defeat a 2008 gay marriage proposal in California. The Douglas and Maria DeVos Foundation gave $500,000 to the National Organization for Marriage in 2009.

The Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation reportedly gave $100,000 to the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy more than a decade ago. The nonprofit supported “traditional” marriage as between one man and one woman.

DeVos and her husband attended the 2013 marriage of Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser and his husband, McNeilly said, the ceremony presided over by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

McNeilly rushed to the Ingham County Courthouse and wed his own partner in March 2014 after a federal judge briefly struck down Michigan’s gay marriage ban, which was later reinstated until a landmark 2015 ruling that made same-sex marriage legal nationwide.

“The first text of congratulations I got when I got married was from Betsy,” he said. “She often chides me she would have been there had we actually had a planned wedding.”

The Health, Education, Labor & Pensions committee is expected to vote on DeVos’ nomination as soon as Tuesday.

Transition spokesman and incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Thursday criticized Democrats for attempting to “delay” the nomination of various Trump picks, including Detroit native Ben Carson, tapped to serve as director of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

But Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, blasted what he called a “swamp cabinet” of billionaires and bankers. The DeVos confirmation hearing “was so appalling to so many Americans,” Schumer said. He noted Democrats published an online video highlighting some of their questions and her responses in committee.

“Fifteen million people have seen it, and if you go look on the social media, even Trump supporters are saying, why the heck did you nominate her?” Schumer said.