EXCLUSIVE Report on How the DeVos Family's Dark Money is Reshaping Education

You should know about the DeVos family and their role in contemporary American political life. The DeVos family dominated the list of top individual donors to state political parties, candidates, PACs and ballot committees in Michigan in 2012 – as they normally do. Here’s a brief rundown: • Family patriarch Richard (Rich) DeVos, Sr. and his wife Helen gave reported contributions of $2.7 million to state political committees. Prominent among those contributions were $1 million to the Michigan Republican Party and $1 million to the ballot committee, Protecting Michigan Taxpayers, which led the successful opposition to a proposed state constitutional amendment that would have guaranteed a right to collective bargaining. Rich DeVos was the co-founder of ‘network-marketing’ giant Amway, and he owns the NBA’s Orlando Magic. • Richard (Dick) DeVos, Jr. and Elisabeth (Betsy) DeVos gave $715,900 to Michigan committees. Prominent among their contributions were $250,000 to Protecting Michigan Taxpayers; $235,000 to the Great Lakes Education Project, the family-dominated ‘education choice’ political action committee; $100,000 to the Michigan Republican Party; and $50,000 to Right to Life of Michigan. Dick DeVos was the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Michigan in 2006 whose $35.5 million in campaign self-funding was then a national record for a Republican gubernatorial candidate (since eclipsed by Rick Scott in Florida and Meg Whitman in California). Betsy DeVos is a former chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party whose family has its own history in American conservative life. Her late father, Ed Prince, the manufacturer of lighted-mirror automobile visors, was a crucial early financial supporter of Gary Bauer and the founding of the Family Research Council. Betsy’s brother, Erik Prince, was the founder-owner of the Iraq War era private security contractor Blackwater USA. • Douglas (Doug) and Maria DeVos gave $587,500, including $250,000 to Protecting Michigan Taxpayers and $120,000 to the Michigan Republican Party. Doug DeVos has been the president of Amway since 2002. • Daniel (Dan) and Pamella DeVos gave $549,650, including $250,000 to Protecting Michigan Taxpayers and $110,000 to the Michigan Republican Party. Dan DeVos owns numerous Fox Motors car dealerships in Michigan (DeVos: ‘The fox,’ from Middle Dutch) and he is the majority owner of the Grand Rapids Griffins, the top farm team of the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings. • Suzanne (Cheri) DeVos Vanderweide gave $330,200, including $250,000 to Protecting Michigan Taxpayers and $35,000 to the Michigan Republican Party. Cheri DeVos Vanderweide lists her occupation as homemaker. She is the sister of Dick, Doug and Dan DeVos. As impressive a total as $4,847,000 is for the DeVos family’s political contributions to Michigan state political committees in the 2012 cycle, it’s not the end of the story. The Sunlight Foundation’s database of the ‘1% of the 1%’ of political donors shows DeVos family members gave $1,323,000 to federal political committees in the 2012 cycle, including $59,000 from four members of the third generation of political donors in the family, all of whom list their occupation as student. And still, that is not the end of the story. There was a tidal wave of unreported dark money spending in Michigan state campaigns in 2012 - proportionally, much more than the dark money in 2012 federal campaigns. While the Michigan Republican Party reported receipts of $5.5 million ($1.4 million of which was contributed by the DeVos family), I was able to document from broadcasters’ public files at least $7.1 million more that the party spent for bogus TV “issue” ads about legislative and Supreme Court candidates, that was entirely unreported to the State of Michigan. It is very reasonable to wonder whether the MI GOP’s top donors of record may have had a role in funding the spending that was not reported. And still there are more questions. Among the ballot committees that spent nearly $32 million to defeat Michigan’s proposed constitutional amendment to guarantee collective bargaining, $16.6 million came from two nonprofit corporations – the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Grand Rapids-based Michigan Alliance for Business Growth – that do not disclose their donors. Again, it’s reasonable to wonder whether the DeVos family was a donor to those non-disclosing nonprofits. At any rate, you get the basics. The DeVos family is part of a very elite class of donors to American conservative politics. A History of Giving to Reshape Education Funding In 2000, Betsy DeVos resigned as chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party because of a split with Gov. John Engler over a school voucher ballot proposal. The DeVos family led a ballot initiative that would have created a state education funding system that would provide taxpayer-funded vouchers that could be used at nonpublic schools. Despite having more than twice as much funding as the voucher opponents, $15.4 million to $7.2 million, the voucher initiative captured just 30.9 percent of the vote. The DeVos family provided $5.75 million for the voucher campaign. Dick and Betsy DeVos gave $1.56 million. Dick’s parents, Rich and Helen, gave more than $2 million. Betsy’s mother, Elsa Prince, gave $2 million and Betsy’s brother, Erik Prince, gave $200,000. Other major backers of the 2000 voucher campaign included the Catholic Church in Michigan, $3 million, and now-deceased Wal-Mart heir John Walton, who contributed $2 million. Subsequent to the massive failure of the voucher campaign, Dick and Betsy DeVos adopted a PAC strategy to achieve their political goals. In Michigan, the Great Lakes Education Project was established in 2002 to support candidates who support education choice. Since its founding, it has raised $3.5 million, half of which was contributed by various members of the DeVos family – mainly Dick and Betsy. In 2003, All Children Matter was organized as a Virginia state PAC, but it was run from Grand Rapids by the former executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, Greg Brock. In the 2004 election cycle, All Children Matter was one of the biggest PACs in the nation, state or federal. It spent $8.2 million in at least ten states from Florida to Washington. Dick and Betsy DeVos gave the committee $375,000, but the big donors were Wal-Mart scions John and James Walton, who gave $3.2 million and $3.1 million, respectively. In the 2006 cycle, All Children Matter spent $7.1 million in at least six states. The estate of John Walton gave $4.1 million. Betsy DeVos contributed $210,000. In 2007, All Children Matter dissolved as a Virginia state PAC, although it continues to file reports with the Internal Revenue Service as a 527 committee. Currently, historic records of 527s, including All Children Matter, are inaccessible from the IRS web site. ACM’s July 2013 report shows no financial activity. In 2010, Betsy DeVos became chairwoman of American Federation for Children, and Greg Brock became the new 501(c)(4)’s executive director. It published a 2012 Election Impact Report stating that it spent $7 million in seven states. It does not report its donors, but the corporation’s web site says, “This organization traces its roots to the founders of the modern school choice movement, most notably the late John T. Walton, a visionary philanthropist and education reformer.” Culture Wars on the Ballot in Michigan In 2004, the DeVos family once again teamed with the dioceses of the Catholic Church in a ballot campaign in Michigan. As part of the national wave of state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, the Catholic Church contributed $1 million, the Family Research Council kicked in $190,000 and the Prince- DeVos family gave $125,000 in an easy ballot win against marriage equality. The DeVos family took a stand in two more ballot questions in 2008 – on the losing side of both questions. Rich DeVos gave $250,000 as a junior partner to the Catholic Church (which gave $5 million) to oppose stem cell research. Dick DeVos gave $30,000 to the campaign to oppose medical marijuana. In a rare set of circumstances, the DeVos’ side was outspent significantly on both questions. FTW – “Freedom to Work” After the November 2012 election the Michigan Legislature took up right to work legislation – or, as they marketed the idea, ‘freedom to work.’ Some in the Republican legislative caucuses claimed that organized labor ‘made them do it’ by pursuing its collective bargaining constitutional amendment. That narrative ignored the fact that the legislature had already prohibited public employers from collecting union dues by payroll deduction as an illegal use of public resources. The truth of the matter is that prohibiting collection of PAC contributions and dues was meant to cripple the fundraising capacity of public employee unions, a major source of funds for the Democratic Party. Governor Rick Snyder had maintained for months that FTW was not on his agenda – until the day during the lame duck session when it was clear the votes were there, and he came out in support. In a news conference that was reminiscent of a hostage video, the Governor recited someone else’s talking points that he clearly had not yet assimilated. A clue to the source of those talking points emerged while the FTW bills were waiting to be voted on. A brand new 501(c)(4) corporation called Michigan Freedom Fund ran a week-long, million-dollar ad blitz to buck up legislators who might get wobbly before the vote. The new advocacy corporation is led by long-time DeVos factotum, Greg McNeilly. McNeilly, who had been the executive director of the Michigan Republican Party when Betsy DeVos was its chair, was, at the time, employed by the DeVos’ Windquest Group. In recent weeks, McNeilly has announced that Michigan Freedom Fund is staffing up for more advocacy. Of course, that is not proof that MFF and FTW are DeVos projects. But McNeilly has been a DeVos loyalist for over a decade and American Federation for Children is a clear example that the DeVos family now works the nonprofit world – as do most political funders who want to avoid being a personal lightning rod. Now, you know the DeVos family. Look for their fingerprints on conservative handiwork in your state. Rich Robinson is the executive director of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network. He has been following the money in Michigan politics for 13 years.

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