During Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s contentious confirmation hearing in January, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) expressed concerns that the Michigan billionaire would use her immense wealth to influence education policy.
“If you are confirmed, I want to know if you believe it is appropriate for you and your family to continue to use this to pressure state, local and federal candidates to support your agenda,” Murray said during the Jan. 17 hearing.
“If I am confirmed, I will not be involved in any political contributions, and my husband will not be either,” DeVos replied.
Now, Murray says DeVos’s husband, Dick DeVos, has violated that pledge. The Detroit News reported Monday that the secretary’s husband, who is an heir to the Amway direct-sales fortune, donated $5,000 to political action committees this year, after his wife was confirmed Feb. 8. Murray’s office found two other donations to Michigan-based political action committees totaling $15,000.
In a letter sent to the secretary’s office Tuesday, Murray wrote that she is “concerned that you, your husband and your extended family continue to utilize your vast wealth to influence and impose your agenda on a political system in which you already wield power as the secretary of education.” Murray asked the secretary for an explanation and for an accounting of all of her husband’s donations.
A spokesman for Betsy DeVos did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The secretary comes from immense personal wealth and had previously thrown her resources behind efforts to push private school vouchers and school choice policies. Her family has donated millions to the Republican Party. She and her husband gave $2.7 million in 2016 alone, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan research group Center for Responsive Politics. Senators scrutinized the donations during DeVos’s confirmation hearing, suggesting that she earned the nomination because of her family’s largesse.
Greg McNeilly, spokesman for Dick DeVos’s company, the Windquest Group, said the secretary’s husband took the pledge to mean he should no longer contribute to candidates in federal races. The PACs to which Dick DeVos made contributions do give to federal candidates, but McNeilly said DeVos “is not a decision-maker on those.”
“Betsy nor Dick have not contributed to any federal candidates and that is keeping with the context of what she said,” McNeilly said in an interview Tuesday with The Washington Post. “Clearly, some partisans might attempt to silence or limit the family’s freedom of speech rights or seek to attack their civil rights . . . but that’s just partisan hackery.”
He took issue with the way Murray characterized the family’s giving: “Political contributions do not pressure” candidates, he said.
“The mis- or underreported story is the self-limitation or the restraint that Betsy and Dick have placed on themselves to not engage in the federal arena,” he added, saying the family has significantly curtailed their giving since Betsy DeVos became education secretary.
In her letter, Murray said she found several other instances of political giving, including donations made to Republican candidates in tightly contested congressional races: Rep. Karen Handel (R-Ga.), Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.) and Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.). But McNeilly said those contributions came from Dick DeVos’s father — Richard DeVos. Gianforte’s campaign finance records incorrectly list Dick DeVos’s employment information, said McNeilly, who produced a copy of a check written from Dick DeVos’s father to corroborate his account.
McNeilly suggested critics were attempting to bully Dick DeVos into silence.
“While honoring Betsy’s pledge, Dick won’t be silenced and pushed away from civil discourse and will be active in nonfederal candidates in the future,” McNeilly said. “Folks that have a problem with that — we’ll be happy to send them a copy of the First Amendment.”