Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for education secretary, is not just a prospective Cabinet member seeking confirmation from the U.S. Senate.
She is also a billionaire Republican donor whose family’s donations have funded the campaigns of many of the senators now tasked with voting on her nomination, including members of the committee overseeing her confirmation hearing, scheduled for Wednesday.
During the 2014 and 2016 election cycles, DeVos and her relatives gave at least $818,000 to 20 current Republican senators, including more than $250,000 to five members of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), according to a Washington Post analysis of Federal Election Commission records.
DeVos personally made a relatively small percentage of those donations: at least $31,400 to committee members and $96,000 to all senators. But her giving appears to have been coordinated with her family: In most cases, senators received donations from more than a half-dozen DeVos family members, including her husband, his parents and his siblings, on the same day.
To money-in-politics watchdogs, the DeVos family’s contributions create a conflict of interest for senators now charged with judging Betsy DeVos’s fitness to helm the Education Department.
“She’s acknowledged that her family gives, and gives a lot, because it’s aiming to buy influence,” said Robert Weissman of Public Citizen, who said the scale of the DeVos family’s political donations is unusual for a prospective Cabinet member. “Against that backdrop, how are the senators supposed to evaluate her nomination in an unbiased way? They can’t.”
Trump’s transition officials and DeVos supporters say that members of the DeVos family have been exercising their right to support candidates who share their political views and that it’s nothing new for senators — including Democrats — to vote on the confirmation of wealthy nominees who make donations to them.
On Friday, two groups that advocate for reform of money in politics — End Citizens United and Every Voice — called on senators who have received donations from DeVos to recuse themselves from voting on her confirmation. Absent those recusals, “it is impossible to be sure she will receive the scrutiny this important position deserves,” said David Donnelly, of Every Voice.
DeVos supporters push back against the notion that her track record as a donor is unusual, pointing to billionaire Penny Pritzker, Obama’s commerce secretary, as one of several recent examples of Cabinet members with a history of making significant political donations. In the four years before her nomination, Pritzker donated about $20,000 to Democratic senators who then voted on her confirmation, according to FEC records.
“If you accept the faulty premise that political contributions create a conflict of interest, then any amount is problematic,” said Ed Patru, spokesman for Friends of Betsy DeVos, a group of supporters. “I don’t remember a single Democrat, citing conflicts of interest, recusing themselves from a vote on billionaires like Penny Pritzker.”
Patru said that the DeVos family has given to Republicans for decades, not because they were plotting for Betsy DeVos to become education secretary, but because they are ideologically aligned with Republicans.
“They are proponents of limited government, personal responsibility, free markets and a strong national defense,” Patru said. “Betsy believes labor’s monopolistic stranglehold on public education holds back progress, particularly in communities of color.”
DeVos family members, heirs to the Amway fortune, are consistent major donors to Republicans and groups supporting their candidacies. Since 1989, they have given at least $20.2 million to Republican candidates running at the federal level, party committees, PACs and super PACs, according to OpenSecrets.org. They gave at least $10 million in the 2016 cycle.
Betsy DeVos and her husband, Dick DeVos Jr., have focused their energy and political contributions on expanding charter schools and taxpayer-funded vouchers for private and religious schools.
She has previously said that her family expects a return on investments in political candidates and causes, writing in Roll Call in 1997 that she had decided “to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence.”
“Now I simply concede the point,” she wrote nearly 20 years ago. “They are right. We do expect some things in return. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American values.”
DeVos has given to policymakers from both parties who share her values, according to a spokeswoman for Trump’s transition team. She emphasized that DeVos’s donations are public information, as are the donations to Democrats from teachers unions — who vehemently oppose DeVos’s nomination.
The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers — the nation’s two largest teachers unions, which represent more than 4 million workers — spend millions of dollars each election cycle to support primarily Democratic candidates and outside groups aligned with their interests. The two unions gave a total of $546,000 to current senators in the 2014 and 2016 cycles, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Democrats have singled out DeVos as one of eight Trump Cabinet picks deserving of extra scrutiny and skepticism, arguing that she has no experience as an educator or elected official and has a record of undermining U.S. public schools. They are likely to bring up her political donations during her confirmation as evidence of her efforts to influence Congress, according to staffers.
Many Republicans are hopeful that DeVos, an avowed small-government conservative, will shrink the federal government’s footprint in education and will continue her efforts to expand alternatives to traditional public schools.
Asked whether Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the HELP committee chairman, has any concerns about conflicts of interest related to DeVos’s donations, spokeswoman Margaret Atkinson said that “Betsy DeVos is an eminently qualified nominee who has devoted her career to children’s education, and Chairman Alexander looks forward to her hearing.”
Alexander has not received individual donations from DeVos family members, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
In her home state of Michigan, DeVos has played a key role in shaping a fast-growing charter-school sector that even many charter-school supporters criticize as lacking in oversight and quality. Nationally, she has been a powerful force in successfully pushing for the rapid expansion of taxpayer-funded vouchers, which funnel public dollars into private and religious schools.
Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the HELP committee’s ranking Democrat, said this week that after speaking with DeVos, she continues to have “serious concerns” about the nominee’s “long record of working to privatize and defund public education, expand taxpayer-funded private school vouchers, and block accountability for charter schools, including for-profit charter schools.”
Murray also said she is concerned about DeVos’s “extensive financial entanglements and potential conflicts of interest.”
Of the 20 sitting senators who received money from the DeVos family during the past four years, Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — who ran two campaigns in 2016, for president and then for Senate — was the biggest beneficiary. He received at least $81,000 from Betsy DeVos and 11 of her family members, including her husband, Dick DeVos Jr.; her mother- and father-in-law, Helen and Richard Devos Sr.; her brothers- and sisters-in-law, Douglas, Daniel, Pamella, Maria and Cheri; and two nieces and a nephew.
“When people contribute to my campaign, they support my agenda,” Rubio said. “I appreciate that Ms. DeVos agrees with my agenda, and I look forward to supporting her nomination.”
DeVos’s confirmation must be approved by the HELP committee before it is taken up by the full Senate. Five of the 12 GOP members of that committee — Richard Burr, Lisa Murkowski, Tim Scott, Bill Cassidy and Todd Young — each received more than $40,000 from the DeVos family during the past four years, according to FEC records.
Burr, of North Carolina, received $43,200 from Betsy DeVos and seven of her relatives; all of those donations were made on March 31, 2015, according to campaign finance disclosures. Asked whether Burr believes the money poses a conflict of interest, a spokesman declined to comment.
Murkowski, of Alaska, also received $43,200 from eight DeVos family members, with all of the donations dated March 26, 2015. Jenna Mason, a spokeswoman for Murkowski, said that the senator’s office does not “follow what contributions are made to Senator Murkowski’s campaign, nor do we take them into account when considering an issue or taking official action in the U.S. Senate.”
Young, who defeated Evan Bayh in November to become Indiana’s junior senator, received $48,600 from nine DeVos family members. Cassidy, of Louisiana, received $70,200 from nine DeVos family members in 2014. Scott, of South Carolina, received $43,200 from eight DeVos family members on March 31, 2015, and another $6,000 on June 10, 2014.
Spokesmen for Young and Cassidy did not respond to requests for comment.
Sean Smith, a spokesman for Scott, said the senator does not believe that DeVos’s political contributions pose any conflict of interest or affect his ability to objectively evaluate her. Scott is a vocal supporter of vouchers and charter schools who gave the keynote address at a 2016 national meeting of DeVos’s advocacy group, American Federation for Children.
“Senator Scott has been a strong supporter of school choice and improving our education systems long before he ever met Betsy DeVos,” Smith said. “His mission is to help kids growing up in poor neighborhoods like the ones he grew up in achieve their dreams, and he does not waver from that position no matter who is leading the Department of Education.”