One major criticism leveled by opponents of Betsy DeVos’ nomination as education secretary is the claim she owes the state of Ohio $5.3 million in fines for a political action committee she was involved in violating state elections laws.
“This $5.3 million that Betsy DeVos owes Ohio could pay for more teachers, technology upgrades and critical priorities to help us educate Ohio kids,” said Ohio’s Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown in a recent statement. “She owes this money to Ohio’s taxpayers and it’s outrageous that a billionaire has failed to make good on these fines for eight years while our schools are strapped for money.”
The I-Team looked into the claims to answer the question: Does DeVos owe the money to the state of Ohio?
The answer: Legally, no.
DeVos and her husband were founders and major donors to the pro-charter school PAC All Children Matter.
And the PAC and its Ohio affiliate were each slapped with $2.6 million in fines by the Ohio Elections Commission for violating state elections laws in 2008. The PACs fought the fines, but they were upheld and the money has not been paid.
But the fines are against the PACs, not any individuals. In fact, Ohio Elections Commission Executive Director Philip Richter said DeVos wasn’t involved in the state’s case against the PAC.
“She was not a named party,” he said. “She was not responsible for anything before the (Ohio Elections) commission.”
The PAC itself was found to have violated campaign contribution limits laws.
In 2006, the PAC received an advisory opinion from the Elections Commission stating it could not transfer large sums of money from its federal PAC to its state PAC. The reason for this, Richter said, is that other states have looser contribution limits and rules on corporate giving. State officials want to prevent groups from getting around Ohio law by collecting money elsewhere and transferring it to Ohio.
After receiving this opinion, they transferred $870,000 from the federal PAC to the state PAC. The elections commission in 2008 levied the largest fine it could – three times the improperly transferred money – against each PAC. So $2.6 million each, or about $5.3 million total.
The PAC fought the fine all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court, which upheld it. The Ohio Attorney General then secured a court order for the PAC to pay the money.
All Children Matter Ohio PAC filed paperwork terminating its existence in January 2016, according to the Ohio Secretary of State’s website.
The Virginia-based national PAC still exists but has no money on hand in its Ohio campaign finance filings. It last received donations in 2011 – mostly $11,000 from Betty DeVos’ husband Richard – but spent it all on legal fees.
So how can someone — or something in this case — get away with not paying elections fines for so long? A 2015 I-Team investigation found this is not uncommon.
We analyzed fines levied against local and state candidates who failed to file campaign finance reports on time and found less than 1 percent of $8.8 million in initial fines against political candidates and committees had been paid in the previous three years.
UPDATE: Sen. Brown’s office responded to this article arguing that because records say DeVos was chairman of All Children Matter when the PAC flouted state law, she should be responsible for the fine.
While Brown and others argue that DeVos is morally responsible for the fine, state officials and the courts say she is not legally responsible for it.