WASHINGTON — In January 2017, a senior Senate Democrat grilled Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s then-nominee to lead the Education Department, on whether she planned to use her family’s vast wealth to influence politics while she was in office.
In 1997, DeVos had written of her West Michigan billionaire family’s widespread contributions to conservative causes: “We do expect something in return. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues. We expect a return on our investment.”
At her confirmation hearing, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) — the top Democrat on the Senate committee charged with vetting the nomination — asked DeVos whether she believed “it’s appropriate for you and your family to continue to use its wealth to pressure state, local and federal candidates to support your agenda.”
DeVos pledged: “If I am confirmed, as you know, I will not be involved and engaged in political contributions, and my husband will not be, either.”
But her husband, Richard “Dick” DeVos Jr., has continued to contribute to candidates while his wife is education secretary, federal campaign finance records show.
This election cycle, Dick DeVos contributed $400,000 in September to the pro-Trump super PAC America First Action Inc., which can accept unlimited contributions.
The former 2006 Michigan GOP gubernatorial nominee also donated $100,000 to the Republican National Committee in October and $5,600 to Trump’s reelection campaign that month. He contributed $10,000 in October to the Republican Party of Kentucky, and gave $5,000 on March 30 of this year to the Great America Committee, a political action committee launched by Vice President Mike Pence.
Nick Wasmiller, a spokesman for the DeVos family, told MLive in April that Dick DeVos and Betsy DeVos had not “supported federal candidates” since she took her confirmation pledge in 2017.
But Wasmiller told the Advance this week that the pledge was only intended to apply to members of Congress.
“Mr. DeVos has fully complied with his voluntary commitment regarding personal political engagement. The framing of his commitment was in regard to support for individuals who have oversight responsibility for the Secretary’s agenda — that is those in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate,” Wasmiller said in an email.
“It would be nonsensical to suggest that support of individuals within the administration — the President and Vice President who selected her for the position in the first place — would break that pledge,” Wasmiller added.
Simon Schuster, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, said it was clear that DeVos’ promise has been broken.
“Betsy DeVos’ on-record pledge that her spouse, Richard DeVos Jr., would not make political contributions during her tenure as education secretary clearly has not been kept according to these filings, regardless of whether the pledge was meant for state or federal contributions,” Schuster said.
He added, “there isn’t anything to my knowledge prohibiting these contributions other than the education secretary’s word.”
Schuster said his organization’s tracking shows that Dick DeVos has “continued to make political contributions prolifically at the state level since his wife’s appointment, and these contributions at the national level fit with that trend.”
The Education Department did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
DeVoses shell out for James, other 2020 races
Overall, the most recent campaign finance records show that members of the DeVos family have poured more than $4 million into political committees this election cycle.
They have pumped cash into Michigan’s U.S. Senate race, congressional contests in the state, Trump’s re-election bid and other high-stakes political battles around the country. It’s no surprise — in the 2016 cycle, the family gave at least $10 million to a host of GOP candidates and committees. In 2018, the DeVoses spent $11 million, as the Advance reported.
A significant chunk of their spending this cycle has gone toward efforts to unseat Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.). Michigan’s junior Democratic senator is facing a challenge from Republican businessman John James, who lost his bid last cycle to defeat U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing).
The DeVos family in December donated $800,000 to a super PAC called the Better Future Michigan Fund, which was set up to boost James’ campaign. The group — which can accept unlimited donations — has spent almost $1 million to attack Peters, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
The DeVoses have been the highest contributors to the group, with donations coming from three of Amway co-founder Richard DeVos’ four children — Daniel, Douglas and Cheri — and their spouses. (Dick DeVos Jr. is the fourth sibling.)
In December, Daniel and his wife, Pamella DeVos, each contributed $200,000 to the pro-James super PAC. Douglas and his wife, Maria DeVos, each contributed $100,000; Cheri DeVos and her husband, Steve Ehmann, each contributed $100,000.
Jerry Tubergen — CEO of RDV Corp., the DeVos’ investment management firm — contributed another $100,000 to the super PAC in December.
DeVos family members have also maxed out to James’ campaign, which is subject to federal contribution limits. Daniel, Douglas, Cheri, Pamella and Maria DeVos, along with Ehmann, have contributed a total of $33,600. James has outraised Peters for the past three quarters, although Peters has raised more overall in the cycle.
Michigan Democratic Party spokesperson Elena Kuhn told the Advance in a statement that electing James “is the DeVos family’s number one priority because they know that he’d be a reliable vote for Betsy DeVos’ anti-public education agenda.”
The James campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Trump’s reelection campaign also has received $33,600 from the DeVos family members, the records show.
Businessman Peter Meijer, a Republican running for Michigan’s 3rd District, took in $33,600 from DeVos family members, as did U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph), who’s running for re-election in Michigan’s 6th District.