GOP chairman denies request for second DeVos hearing

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The Senate committee chairman on Monday rejected a formal request from Democrats for a second hearing to question west Michigan businesswoman and education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos about her complex financial holdings ahead of a committee vote Jan. 31.

The request from committee Democrats came after DeVos, a billionaire from the Grand Rapids area, finalized her financial disclosure statement and signed an agreement with the Office of Government Ethics late last week explaining her intention to divest within 90 days from 102 companies and holdings that pose potential conflicts of interest.

Washington State Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, said Democrats particularly wanted to ask about companies DeVos would continue to own that are “directly impacted” by the U.S. Department of Education and the Trump administration’s education agenda.

“We would like to ask Ms. DeVos additional questions we were prevented from asking this week, given we did not know all of the financial and ethical information that has now been shared with us, as well as address additional questions that have arisen from the OGE paperwork,” Murray and other Democrats wrote in a letter Monday to committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee.

“We believe the opportunity to ask such questions is consistent with the responsibilities and practices of this committee.”

Alexander will not hold a second hearing on DeVos’ nomination, a committee aide said Monday in response to the Democrats’ letter.

The chairman has said it’s “absolute nonsense” to say there wasn’t enough time to ask questions, citing the access that senators have had to DeVos, including private meetings with each committee member.

Alexander says DeVos’ 31/2-hour hearing went 11/2 hours longer than the hearings for either education secretary nominated by former President Barack Obama. DeVos is also answering 837 written questions submitted by committee Democrats, compared with 81 questions combined that Republicans submitted in writing to Obama’s two secretaries of education.

Murray has accused Alexander of trying to “protect” DeVos from scrutiny by ending Tuesday’s hearing after a single round of questioning by most senators. At the hearing, Democrats used part of their time to question DeVos to ask Alexander for more time with her, and only Murray was allowed a second round of questioning.

DeVos, 59, is the school choice advocate and GOP mega donor who twice chaired the Michigan Republican Party.

Democrats and labor unions have objected to her nomination, arguing she would undermine the public school system to promote charter, private and other education options. DeVos has responded that she supports all forms of public education and wants to give families more options for choosing their education.

At the hearing, DeVos testified that anything deemed a conflict of interest would be divested, and that she and husband Dick would discontinue political contributions if she is confirmed by the Senate to lead the U.S. Department of Education.

She also testified that her family’s investments in a student loan financing company and a chain of for-profit online charter schools are in the process of being divested.

In her Jan. 19 letter to the ethics official at the Department of Education, DeVos promised not to participate “personally or substantially” in matters in which she or family members have a direct financial interest, and to divest within 90 days her interest in 102 listed entities. She intends to keep her position as co-trustee of a set of family trusts but forgo any fees for her services.

Among other resignations, DeVos said she has stepped down as chair of the Windquest Group, the Grand Rapids investment firm she started with husband Dick, and left the couple’s foundation. She also resigned from the helm of the American Federation for Children, a Washington, D.C.-based organization devoted to expanding school of choice options.

In Senate disclosures, DeVos has said she would serve a full term as education secretary but intends to return to the family businesses in Michigan afterward.

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