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Husband’s donations cloud Betsy DeVos’ pledge

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Businessman Dick DeVos this year contributed to two Michigan political action committees despite a pledge from U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos that she and her husband would suspend their political contributions during her tenure under President Donald Trump.

State disclosure records show Dick DeVos contributed $3,000 to the Michigan Chamber of Commerce PAC on April 20 and $2,000 to the Friends of West Michigan Business Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce PAC on July 24.

Betsy DeVos, with husband Dick, is sworn in as education secretary in 2017.

Both PACs have since contributed to state and federal officials, and critics say her husband’s donations contradict the promise Betsy DeVos made to members of a congressional committee in January.

But a family spokesman defended and downplayed the PAC contributions Friday, telling The Detroit News that Betsy DeVos did not have the chance to “provide a lot of context” in her testimony.

“As it relates to Dick, I think there’s a big difference between (giving to) federal candidates and the rest of the world of political giving, and that was a distinction there wasn’t really an opportunity to make,” Greg McNeilly said. “But I think in his mind, that’s kind of where the line was drawn with her testimony.”

McNeilly suggested the pledge to suspend contributions was focused on direct giving to federal candidates. Dick DeVos is “open” — but not committed — to supporting state-level political candidates this cycle, he said.

Lonnie Scott, executive director of the Progress Michigan liberal advocacy group, said he was not surprised by the PAC contributions from Dick DeVos, which he called a “violation” of Betsy’s stated intentions.

“Did we expect her to keep her word in the first place? I think that’s the real question,” he said. “When you have spent literally millions of your own money to purchase legislators and specific policies, you’re not going to stop that once you can finally get in a position where you can influence it directly.”

D. DeVos

Nomination fight pledge

Trump’s pick for the federal government’s top education post faced heavy scrutiny during the nomination process, in part because the school choice advocate and her husband had spent years using their family fortune to influence the political system.

During a Jan. 17 nomination hearing, Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state asked Betsy DeVos if she and her family would “continue to use its wealth to pressure state, local and federal candidates to support your agenda.”

“If I am confirmed, as you know, I will not be involved in or engaged in political contributions, and my husband will not either,” DeVos told Murray and other members of the U.S. Senate, Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

State and federal records show that neither Dick nor Betsy DeVos has contributed to any candidates or education-focused PACs since she was confirmed by the Senate on Feb. 7, according to state and federal records.

The $5,000 contributed by Dick DeVos, president of the Windquest Group and son of Amway co-founder Richard DeVos, also pales in comparison with political giving in past years. At this point in the 2015-16 election cycle, Betsy and Dick DeVos had given a combined $232,400 to PACs, Republican organizations and state and federal candidates.

Craig Mauger, a watchdog with the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, said DeVos left a lot of “gray area” in her pledge to suspend political giving.

“These PACs exist to raise money and then give it to political candidates, so they are political contributions,” Mauger said of the Dick DeVos donations. “The chamber is going to spend that money supporting candidates that they’ve endorsed and support.”

Michigan Chamber giving

Since Dick DeVos’ contribution to the Michigan Chamber on April 20, the PAC has made $126,347 in political donations, including $20,000 to the state Senate GOP Campaign Committee and $500 to U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Rochester. The PAC gave to one Democrat this fall, reporting a $2,500 contribution to a leadership fund for state Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint.

The Michigan chamber touts its PAC activity online, saying it is a “major factor at the ballot box by backing candidates who back business; candidates who not only say they want to move Michigan forward, but actually act to make it happen, all the while protecting our system of free enterprise.”

Dick DeVos served on the Michigan chamber board at the time of the April contribution, McNeilly said. He no longer holds the post, but board members are routinely asked to support the PAC, McNeilly explained.

Dick DeVos is “more than one step” removed from the PAC donations subsequently made to federal candidates, he said.

“He doesn’t make any decision or directions on where those funds go,” McNeilly said. “It’s more simply in support of the chamber’s mission.”

The $3,000 donation was “within the range of an annual contribution” from a board member, said Michigan Chamber of Commerce President Rich Studley.

Daniel DeVos, president and CEO of Fox Ventures, gave $5,000 to the PAC in February. He and Dick DeVos gave a combined $13,500 in 2016.

“The DeVos family has been actively involved in business, government and politics, and they’ve been very supportive of local chambers in west Michigan and very supportive of the Michigan chamber,” Studley said. “We’re quite proud of that relationship.”

Grand Rapids PAC

The Grand Rapids Chamber PAC contributed to eight different politicians — all Republicans — in the most recent quarter, including an $800 contribution to U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga of Zeeland.

The Grand Rapids chamber boasts that it is “of vital interest to candidates” seeking support for their campaign and “is a key player in the legislative process in Lansing.”

DeVos’ pledge was limited to herself and her husband. Other members of their powerful extended family have continued to spend on both state and federal Republicans.

Records show relatives with the last name DeVos have given $185,300 to political causes and candidates this year since Betsy’s confirmation, including $52,600 in donations from Amway President Doug DeVos and $35,100 from company co-founder Richard DeVos.

“They are a large family and politically active people,” Mauger said. “Many of them want to advance similar policies, and they often give their contributions in a way that happens on the same day, in the same amount.”

Dick DeVos, like his wife, has been named to a federal post in the Trump administration. He was appointed to the Federal Aviation Administration’s civilian Management Advisory Council in September.

Trump on Thursday announced the appointment of Pamella DeVos, a fashion designer and Betsy’s sister-in law, to the Advisory Committee on the Arts of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.