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Does Billionaire Betsy DeVos Buy Her Judges? Seems So.

DeVos family "expects something in return" for over $600,000 to Michigan judges.
Does Billionaire Betsy DeVos Buy Her Judges? Seems So.
Betsy DeVos is laughing all the way to the bank. Image from: By Gage Skidmore

Since Betsy DeVos was nominated and confirmed for Secretary of Education, her political donations have been scrutinized by virtually every American news agency including us here at Crooks and Liars. She doesn't appear to be too concerned over the attention, and she's not shy about it either. In fact Betsy Devos stated:

"I have decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point...We do expect something in return."

With that in mind, I wondered who else the DeVos family has tried to influence with their money. Michigan is a state which elects judges at all levels of their judiciary: civil, probate, appellate and supreme levels.

Elections mean money.

Though judicial elections are supposed to be nonpartisan, it is no secret which justices are Democrats and which are Republicans. One look at their campaign finance records show that the justices took thousands from their respective parties in order to run their elections. Nonpartisan elections just means they don't put an R or D behind their name on the ballot. It's no big surprise that the DeVos family has contributed exclusively to Republican justices.

DeVos Family Businesses

The DeVos family owns a variety of companies through its various family members. The most well known company, the one that made them billionaires, is the Amway Corporation. Amway is also known as Alticor Inc. and is owned by the DeVos and Van Andel families.

Amway has been sued various times for being a pyramid scheme. They sell a variety of products all over the world via distributors. Distributors must buy the products from Amway and then sell them at a mark up to earn a profit. Distributors make more money if they recruit others to sell for them, thus the pyramid label. Distributors are also required to take seminars, which cost money, and then must purchase books and tapes from those seminars.

Many distributors have claimed that Amway products are priced too high and they are unable to sell them at a profit. Other lawsuits involving Amway or Alticor stem from workers' compensation disputes and state tax disputes.


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Buying Judicial Influence

For the purpose of this article, I only looked at contributions made to justices in Michigan by the DeVos family and not the Van Andel family or their employees. Since 1998, the DeVos family has contributed more than $600,000 to judicial candidates. That number is conservative since campaign finance laws are notoriously weak in Michigan.

Though there are limits on the amounts of direct donations to campaigns, donors can give unlimited funds and not be disclosed by funneling their money through media buys for advertising on radio and television. Donors can also give donations to PACs which can then turn around and give the money to candidates.

In Michigan, justices are not required by law to recuse themselves from cases where they have accepted money or media buys from those involved in cases they are adjudicating or from their attorneys for that matter.

Since 1998, the DeVos family has contributed to 22 Michigan justices. The Michigan state website for the judiciary does not include cases from courts lower than the appellant level. It is highly probable that many of the justices adjudicated cases involving the Devos family but were not found. All data was retrieved through the Michigan State campaign finance database.

It should also be noted that Betsy DeVos also used her pro-charter organization, Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP) to funnel millions to judges as well as legislative candidates. GLEP is funded by the DeVos family. The DeVos family also gave extensively to the Michigan Chamber of Commerce which in turn donated to judicial and legislative candidates. Whether or not any of those funds from the DeVos were earmarked for specific candidates is unknown at this time.

Lawsuits involving the DeVos where adjudicating justices reached a decision or refused to hear the case and had also received "influence" money include: Mark Metro v. Amway Asia Pacific LTD, Julie M. Kenney v. Alticor, Inc., Linda J. Linton v. Alticor, Inc. and many cases where Alticor/Amway disputed taxes levied by the Michigan Department of Treasury.

Justices that have taken DeVos money while hearing cases involving their businesses.

Michigan Supreme Court

  1. Chief Justice Cliff Taylor - $43,000 and $225,000 in media buys through (GLEP).
  2. Judge Stephen Markman - $46,050
  3. Judge Robert Young - $27,800 and $1,000 through GLEP.
  4. Judge Maura Corrigan - $12,700.
  5. Judge Elizabeth Weaver - $1,000.
  6. Judge Brian Zahra - $31,450
  7. Judge David Viviano - $83,700
  8. Judge Joan Larsen - $32,500

Circuit Court

  1. Judge William Whitbeck - $2,200

Other justices that have taken "influence" money from the DeVos family.

Michigan Supreme Court

  1. Judge Colleen O'Brien - $23,800
  2. Judge Mary Beth Kelly - $27,200

Appellate Court

  1. Judge Kurtis Wilder - $25,000
  2. Judge Eric Doster - $11,800

Circuit Courts

  1. Judge Karl Weber - $500
  2. Judge Helen Brinkman - $3,000
  3. Judge Joseph Rossi - $9,000

Probate Court

  1. Judge Nanaruth Carpenter - $200
  2. Judge Tracy Vandenbergh - $120

District Court

  1. Judge Paul Beardslee - $3,000
  2. Judge Kevin Elsenheimer - $1,000

Apparently anyone filing a lawsuit against the DeVos family in Michigan is supposed to assume that the justices are above reproach in regards to their ethics. Of those known cases where the judges hearing DeVos family cases have taken their money, it did not appear that the judges disclosed any these donations to opposing parties.

Michigan residents must also question whether this "influence" money was used to "influence" justices that were hearing cases involving charter schools. I would suggest anyone living in these areas consider doing research to further determine if these justices had any involvement in DeVos business lawsuits.

Taking Betsy DeVos at her own words, it would seem that the intent of the family's donations was to influence these justices.

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