Politics

This Is Still Happening: Betsy DeVos

An ongoing roundup of Trump administration malfeasance, Part 3.

Photo illustration of Betsy DeVos, as seen on March 28, against a red background with the "This Is Still Happening" logo.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images.

This Is Still Happening is a new feature in which Slate will attempt to offer an update on Cabinet-level corruption, what could be done to bring the officials to account, and what Democrats are doing in response (generally, nothing). The latest installment is about a figure who has been among the most publicly reviled in the administration, Betsy DeVos.

The Official: Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos

What Is Still Happening: When Betsy DeVos was first selected to be Donald Trump’s secretary of education, there were two main criticisms of her appointment. First, the scion of a wealthy Michigan family, wife of the heir to the Amway fortune, and yacht collector was considered deeply unqualified—her main credential was her standing as a megadonor to Republican causes and as an advocate for charter schools and voucher programs. The second critique was that, as a longtime campaigner for privatizing the American public education system, she would place corporate and religious interests ahead of those of schoolchildren.

Regarding DeVos’ lack of qualifications, it’s certainly not ideal for the United States to have an education secretary who never worked at or attended a public school; never had any personal experience with student loans; could not answer basic questions about federal law; has called public schools a “dead end” and said that government “sucks”; has described her work on education issues as an effort to “advance God’s Kingdom”; and has cited grizzly bear attacks as a reason for there to be guns in public schools. However, it’s really on the second issue—her transparent allegiance to corporate interests—that DeVos has proven more dangerous to the Department of Education and students across the country.

Indeed, last week a federal judge took the incredibly rare step of holding DeVos in contempt for violating a court order that demanded her department stop enforcing loan collections against students who were defrauded by the now-defunct for-profit institution Corinthian College.

While the Corinthian case is the most dramatic instance of DeVos’ loyalty to corporations trumping her responsibilities to students and taxpayers, it is not her only scandal since entering office. Previous potential misconduct includes the following:

• DeVos failed to file her ethics disclosure prior to her Senate confirmation hearings. When it was filed, that ethics disclosure showed that she had stakes in the for-profit education world from which she would be required to divest. As of last year, she also still hadn’t disclosed the assets in two of her three family trusts.

• DeVos claimed during her confirmation hearing that being listed as vice president of her mother’s charitable foundation, which donated millions to an anti-LGBTQ hate group, was a “clerical error.” According to tax records, though, DeVos served on that board for 17 years. (DeVos has since revoked Obama-era protections for transgender students, and her department has greatly diminished the number of claims of anti-LBTQ discrimination it investigates.)

• As the first Cabinet secretary in U.S. history to require around-the-clock protection from the U.S. Marshals Service, DeVos has reportedly cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. While it’s unclear why the unprecedented level of public security might be necessary, the detail was issued just days after DeVos was confronted by a small number of protesters and hecklers outside of a Washington public school. As NBC News reported last November, the cost of DeVos’ security detail up to that point could have “paid for 1,968 Pell Grants for low-income college students for the [2018-2019] school year or 268 new elementary teachers in Kansas.”

• DeVos selected the former dean of the for-profit DeVry University, which recently paid a $100 million settlement to students it had defrauded, to head the Department of Education unit that investigates student aid fraud. That team investigating fraud among for-profit colleges was ultimately hollowed out, according to the New York Times.

• DeVos appointed Candice Jackson to a top job in the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. Jackson said that 90 percent of college Title IX sexual assault allegations “fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.’ ”

In November 2018, DeVos reinstated federal accreditation recognition to ACICS, a company that had been stripped of that status after granting accreditation to Corinthian Colleges and another for-profit institution that fell apart amidst allegations of fraud. When Department of Education Inspector General Sandra Bruce sought to investigate this decision, DeVos’ department attempted to pressure her to drop the probe into DeVos’ actions. A few weeks after Bruce refused to drop her inquiry, department leaders told her she would be removed from office. (Bruce was only allowed to stay on in that role after an outcry over the new appointee’s clear conflicts of interest.) DeVos has since stonewalled the House Oversight Committee’s request for documents related to the IG scandal.

How Long It Has Been Going On: DeVos’ role in the Corinthian saga—her most clear-cut instance of abuse of office—stretches back at least to June 2017, near the start of the Trump administration. That’s when DeVos sought to “reset” an Obama-era rule forgiving loans in cases where for-profit institutions had been found to have committed fraud or misled students, as Corinthian had. DeVos’ department in December 2017 came up with a new version of the rule professing to offer “tiered” loan forgiveness in fraud cases according to need. The department was sued, and in May 2018, U.S. Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim issued a preliminary injunction blocking the department from continuing to collect the loans.

The only problem was that DeVos’ department ignored the court order and continued to collect the loans anyway, 16,000 times, including via tax seizures and wage garnishments. Whoops!

What Would Normally Happen: Ordinarily, there would be very public hearings if a federal department ignored a court order and, in so doing, stole money from 16,000 fraud victims.

There might also be public hearings about a Cabinet secretary who—for the first time in history—relied on the U.S. Marshals Service for a $20 million security detail. One question such hearings might ask is: “Why?”

Finally, there would definitely be an investigation and there might also be hearings if there were reports of political interference against an inspector general. (In the previous administration, the House Oversight Committee held a hearing over the issue of inspector general vacancies. Oversight Democrats did not hold hearings when Obama fired the AmeriCorps inspector general in 2009, but it did review hundreds of pages of documents and conducted staff interviews as part of an inquiry into the matter.)

What Democrats Have Done: Sen. Elizabeth Warren called for DeVos’ resignation after the judge found that she had violated the Corinthian court order.

The House Oversight Committee held a May hearing on “for-profit college oversight and student debt,” but DeVos was not questioned and neither was her DeVry appointee. In May, the committee further accused the Department of Education of obstructing its investigation into the inspector general interference case, after the department turned over just seven pages of redacted documents. It is unclear what further steps the Oversight Committee has taken since.

The House Committee on Education and Labor, meanwhile, last month scheduled a single subcommittee hearing on the Department of Education’s “ties to the loan servicing industry” and “obstruction of oversight.” But that hearing was “postponed,” and a new date has not been made public. House Democrats could hold the hearings that they’ve promised and additional ones into how 16,000 students had money seized from them in violation of a court order. They could also subpoena documents in all of these cases if DeVos continues to stonewall, and eventually hold her in contempt of Congress if she refuses to hand the material over.


What Is Likely to Be Done: 
Democrats might reschedule their postponed education subcommittee hearing, though there’s no sign they would seek to force DeVos to testify. Given the party’s reluctance to even hold potential presidential accomplices and critical witnesses in its high-stakes impeachment inquiry in contempt for obstructing that investigation, it seems unlikely House Democrats will escalate to subpoenas and contempt when it comes to mere abuses against students.

How Impeachable This Stuff Is: DeVos’ conflicts of interest, her stonewalling, and her attitudinal and legal contempt toward students are awful and would seem to disqualify anyone from running the Department of Education. But it’s all small cheese when compared to the rest of this Cabinet2 out of 10.

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