Multiple Democratic senators have called on President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, to pay more than $5 million in fines and late fees owed by a now-inactive school choice organization which violated Ohio’s campaign finance law.
Sens. Tom Udall (D-NM), Ed Markey (D-MA), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) sent DeVos a letter Monday “to express significant concerns” about $5.3 million in fines and late fees owed by All Children Matter PAC to the state of Ohio. In 2008, the group donated $870,000 from its federal account in Virginia to an Ohio affiliate even after the Ohio Elections Commission told the PAC, then headed by DeVos, that any transfer of more than $10,000 would be illegal.
The election commission fined DeVos’ PAC $2.6 million at the time, a penalty which increased to $5.3 million including late fees after the PAC refused to pay.
“Rather than pay the fines for violating the law, the All Children Matter PAC simply ceased operation and never paid the significant sum it owed to the state of Ohio,” the senators’ letter says.
“The blatant disregard for the law that your PAC demonstrated is deeply troubling,” it continues. “However, when the organization’s violations of law were punished by the Ohio Elections Commission, the PAC’s refusal to take responsibility and pay the fines is unconscionable.”
A spokeswoman for Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) joined the group on Wednesday, writing in a statement published by Education Week, “[A]ny campaign finance violations or other illegal acts or improprieties by Ms. DeVos or groups she funds will need to be explained and responded to as Democrats work to evaluate if she can be a Secretary of Education who truly stands with students.”
A former spokesman for DeVos argued that the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling made such limitations on PACs illegal.
“Ms. DeVos was never a party of the All Children Matter lawsuit and as a matter of fact the Ohio state trial court ruled that neither the officers nor board members of the organization could be held liable for the judgement,” Matt Frendewey, now the communications director for the American Federation for Children, wrote in part. “The United States Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case renders this case against a now defunct PAC moot.”
The Ohio Elections Commission has gone after the record-breaking fine for years, to little avail.
“They were challenging it for a while,” Philip Richter, executive director of the Elections Commission, told The Columbus Dispatch in 2014. “We sent it over to the attorney general’s office, and it’s been there where they’ve been working at it at various times. But essentially it’s like trying to get blood out of a turnip.”