A group of Senate Democrats is urging President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, to pay $5.3 million in fines imposed on her political action committee for campaign finance violations in Ohio eight years ago.
“As secretary of education, Betsy DeVos would be responsible for overseeing the nation’s student loan program, including ensuring that students repay their loans, so it’s troubling that she has blatantly ignored her own PAC’s debt to the people of Ohio,” said Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.). “When a student borrower defaults, it has serious ramifications that haunt that student for years — yet when DeVos’s PAC defaulted on its fine for violating the law, they just walked away.”
Udall, along with Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), sent DeVos a letter this week requesting she pay the millions of dollars in fines and late fees ahead of her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Ed Patru, a spokesman for DeVos, said she was never a party to the lawsuit at the center of the fine. Furthermore, he said a trial court judge ruled that none of the officers or board members at All Children Matter could be held liable for the fine.
“This suit was a politically driven effort to derail education reform in Ohio,” Patru said in a statement. “Anyone looking at today’s developments understands it’s a transparently political maneuver that doesn’t in any way change the underlying facts of this case.”
The debt stems from a 2008 case the Ohio Elections Commission brought against All Children Matter, an organization DeVos headed that lobbied for school-choice legislation. Two years earlier, the PAC asked the commission whether it was allowed to contribute more than the $10,000 limit to an affiliate in Ohio. Even though the commission advised that such a move would be in violation of state law, All Children Matter proceeded to provide $870,000 to the Ohio outfit.
The “blatant disregard for the law,” as Democratic lawmakers call it, led the state election commission to impose $2.6 million in fines, its largest penalty to date. The PAC fought the decision, but an Ohio court upheld the fine and imposed additional late fees. All Children Matter’s PAC, however, ceased operations and walked away from the debt.
“That’s not acceptable behavior from anyone, much less a Cabinet secretary for a President-elect who promised to ‘drain the swamp’ of insiders who game the system for special treatment,” Udall said. “I hope Ms. DeVos will have the good judgment to ensure her own PAC’s fine is paid.”
All Children Matter still exists, even though the PAC closed up shop. Yet according to 2015 tax filings, it has less than $300, not nearly enough to cover the millions of dollars owed.
DeVos’s supporters argue that the contribution at the center of the commission lawsuit is no longer illegal in a post-Citizens United world, making the case irrelevant. Yet the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling allowing corporations to spend unlimited money on advocacy for or against candidates had no bearing on a lawsuit that predates the decision by two years.
“The United States Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case renders this case against a now defunct PAC moot,” said Matt Frendewey of the American Federation for Children, a school-choice advocacy group DeVos once chaired. “Choosing to ignore these facts demonstrates this is nothing more than an attempt to impugn Ms. DeVos’ reputation as a nationally recognized education reformer.”
The nomination of DeVos, a conservative who has pushed to expand taxpayer-funded vouchers for private and religious schools, has rankled liberal lawmakers and teachers unions. The nominee has no experience as an educator or education leader, but has spent millions of dollars lobbying for school choice proposals.