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Betsy DeVos Denies Connection to Family Foundation, Despite Paper Trail

By Andrew Ujifusa — January 19, 2017 5 min read
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During her Senate confirmation hearing, Betsy DeVos denied association with the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation. This foundation has donated to groups such as the Family Research Council, which opposes same-sex marriage and is critical of the LGBTQ rights movement.

What do we know about her links to that foundation, which is named after her parents?

Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., brought up the foundation in this way:

Hassan: “It’s your mother’s foundation. And you sit on the board?”

DeVos: “I do not.”

Hassan: “You do not? Okay. So when it made its over $5 million donation to Focus on the Family [which opposes gay marriage and on transgender issues advises parents to “affirm your sons in their masculinity and your daughters in their femininity”], you didn’t know anything about it?”

DeVos: “My mother makes the decisions for her foundation.”

Later, Hassan returned to the issue and highlighted federal tax documents (called Form 990s) from the foundation.

Hassan: “I just wanted to clarify the issue of whether you are on the board of your mother’s foundation. I have 990s up through 2013 where you’re listed as the vice president and a board member. So was that just a mistake on your part?

DeVos: “That was a clerical error. I can assure you I have never made decisions on my mother’s behalf on her foundation board.”

Hassan: “So the listing that you are a vice president of the board is incorrect?”

DeVos: “That is incorrect.”

DeVos also said she does not and has never supported “conversion therapy” for gay people, and that students should be able to attend schools free from discrimination.

In response to a question from us on Tuesday, Matt Frendewey indicated that irrespective of tax forms from prior years, DeVos was accurately addressing her current relationship to the foundation. (Frendeway is a spokesman for the American Federation for Children, the group DeVos led until recently.)

However, the 990 tax forms from the foundation list Betsy DeVos as a vice president from 2001 through 2014. A spokesman for the family, John Prescott, told BuzzFeed that DeVos was surprised to find herself listed as a vice president on the documents. And a Trump transition spokesperson reiterated DeVos’ comments to CNN. ProPublica also reported that on Jan. 13, Michigan state government received a request to remove DeVos’ name from some of the foundation’s paperwork, through a “certificate of correction.” (The certificate was filed by the state of Michigan on Jan. 17, the same day as the hearing.)

We called two people listed on the 990s to ask about any potential clerical error: Dan Fuller, listed as having prepared the 990 form for 2014, and MaryBeth Gernaat, who’s listed as keeping the “books” for the foundation on the 990 form from 2012. Neither Fuller nor Gernaat responded to our requests for comment.

The Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation listed $22.8 million in net assets for 2014, and $5.1 million in total expenses and disbursements. Here are several of the groups the foundation donated to in 2014 with various links to education issues:

Acton Institute ($250,000): Some have accused the group of supporting child labor. An article appeared on the group’s website for which the original headline included the phrase “bring back child labor.” But the author, Joseph Sunde, updated the post to say he did not support replacing education with labor, or sending kids into coal mines “or other high-risk jobs.”

Alliance Defending Freedom ($50,000): The group has filed lawsuits against transgender students’ rights regarding restrooms and locker rooms. In a suit against a Minnesota school district on behalf of parents, the group said that a transgender student acted inappropriately in a girls’ locker room.

Center for Urban Renewal and Education ($20,000): The Washington group seeks to “address issues of culture, race and poverty from a Judeo-Christian conservative perspective.”

Compass Film Academy ($15,000): The Compass College of Cinematic Arts in Grand Rapids, Mich., where DeVos lives, has a “Christ-centered focus that fosters entrepreneurial success and serves as an asset on film and television shoots, and in executive studio and corporate settings.”

Eagle Forum Education and Legal Defense Fund ($5,000): This group is associated with the Eagle Forum, which was founded by conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly and is opposed to gay marriage. The group also supports English-only education in schools and opposes the Common Core State Standards.

Gateways to Better Education ($20,000): “Gateways was founded in 1991 to help public schools teach about the important contribution the Bible and Christianity make to the world. We give confidence to teachers and school administrators, and we help parents navigate the public schools so their children graduate with their faith and values intact,” the group says on its website.

Intervarsity Christian Fellowship ($1,000): An evangelical ministry operating on college campuses, the group was founded in 1941.

Heritage Foundation ($1,000): The Washington think tank supports school choice, and opposed the Obama administration’s guidance to schools on transgender students issued last year that said such students’ rights were covered by Title IX legal protections.

Kids Hope USA ($10,000): The group runs mentoring programs through church-school partnerships.

Mackinac Center for Public Policy ($15,000): The conservative-leaning Michigan-based think tank supports school choice, and specifically backs online charter schools.

Potter’s House Christian School ($25,000): This is a private Christian school in Grand Rapids. DeVos said during her Senate confirmation hearing that her visit to the school several years ago was a transformative experience and triggered her interest in education.

South Shore Youth Impact ($15,000): The Holland, Mich.-based group aims to “provide a safe, encouraging, positive Christian environment for kids, teens and their families in our community while providing resources for a more hopeful future.”

Students for Life of America ($5,000): The group aims to “abolish abortion.” Members of the group plan to attend the Women’s March on Washington on Jan. 21, the day after Trump’s inauguration.

Education Week Librarian Holly Peele contributed to this blog post.

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