As former ethics counsels to Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, we’ve reviewed more than our share of ethics filings for cabinet nominees. Seldom have we seen a worse cabinet-level ethics mess than that presented by Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s choice for education secretary.
Her extensive financial holdings present significant—and unresolved—conflict of interest issues. She also failed to provide the Senate with accurate information about her involvement with outside organizations. We have regretfully come to the conclusion that these concerns disqualify DeVos for that cabinet position.
This is not a claim that we make reflexively. We supported the nomination of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who took extensive steps to avoid conflicts with his former employer, ExxonMobil. Likewise, we have welcomed the plan that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has announced to address his ethics issues, although we await final details and implementation. By contrast, DeVos’ failure to meet even minimum standards leaves us with no choice but to speak out.
For example, DeVos intends to maintain the $5 million to $25 million she and her husband have invested in Neurocore, a biotech company that claims to have “helped thousands of children” with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Neurocore is listed with its logo and a link to its website along with several other investments on a website operated by Windquest Group, an investment company owned by DeVos and her husband.
DeVos retaining her interest in Windquest Group raises significant concerns about how her and her spouse’s investments in the company, and her affiliation with it, will be managed so as to avoid potential conflicts of interest now and in the future. Having the Secretary of Education continue to hold an investment in “a science and research brain-based program” that produces “life-changing results” targeted towards children is a departure from precedent and common sense.
As owners of the Windquest Group, Betsy and Dick DeVos are the primary backers of Neurocare. The fact that Neurocare will continue to be held and promoted by her and her spouse’s investment management company on its website is startling, since doing so effectively acts as an endorsement by the Secretary of Education once she takes office. Nor does recusal solve the problem. After all, much of what she does as Secretary will target “life-changing results” for children. Both of us would have advised such a nominee (and the president) that this tie had to be severed.
DeVos reportedly has not provided the detailed supplemental information requested in the Senate questionnaire for some of her holdings, including holdings associated with two of the three trusts for which she will continue to serve as a co-trustee and co-beneficiary with her spouse. If true, her failure to do so is a significant break from past practice and means she has not been fully vetted—a disqualifier in itself.
In her hearing, DeVos also made claims than strain credulity. For example, she was asked under oath about tax filings that listed her as vice president of the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation. The Prince Foundation, established by her parents in 1989, reportedly made significant contributions to anti-LGBT groups over the years, including at least $5 million to conservative religious groups that support conversion therapy.
DeVos denied that she had that role at the Prince Foundation, and when confronted in her hearing by Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) with actual forms indicating she was an officer, DeVos attributed it to a “clerical error”—one that persisted for 17 years.
While this foundation position does not present a legally disqualifying conflict, it appears the Senate was not given the truthful information it needs to perform its advise and consent function under the Constitution. This failure raises questions about the accuracy of information she provided across the board.
DeVos’ refusal to respond satisfactorily to questions about her financial holdings posed by Senate members evinces a lack of understanding and respect for the Senate’s role to advise and consent. These concerns, combined with serious conflicts of interests issues and her failure to credibly explain the 17-year-old “clerical error,” undermines any argument that she is qualified for a cabinet position.
We oppose her nomination on ethics grounds.
Norman Eisen is chairman and co-founder of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. He served as chief ethics lawyer for President Obama and later as U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic. Richard Painter is vice chairman of CREW and a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. He served as chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush.
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