A new lawsuit all but accuses U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos of bribery for her role in influencing Detroit schools legislation last year.
The suit, filed this month by the former Detroit school board and Detroit parents, seeks potentially millions of dollars from the billionaire Michigan philanthropist, asserting that she used campaign contributions to kill a controversial education commission.
“I am not accusing her of bribery,” said lawyer Tom Bleakley, who this month filed the suit in Detroit’s Wayne County Circuit Court. “What I do in all fairness is I set out what she has done and then I give the definition of bribery in the state of Michigan and I contend that it’s up to a jury to draw any reasonable inferences.”
The suit refers to the fierce political battle in Lansing last year over a package of bills that were designed to keep the Detroit Public Schools out of bankruptcy.
Early drafts of the bills would have created a Detroit Education Commission that would have had influence over the opening and closing of district and charter schools in the city.
The commission had broad support from community leaders in Detroit but was strongly opposed by DeVos and some charter school advocates, who feared the commission would favor traditional district schools over charters.
The DeVos-founded Great Lakes Education Project, a political organization, worked aggressively to block the commission.
In the weeks after lawmakers removed the commission from the final bills, the DeVos family poured $1.45 million dollars into the campaign coffers of Republican lawmakers who took her side in the fight — contributions that amounted to $25,000 a day for seven weeks.
“It’s up to a jury to draw any reasonable inference from the amounts as well as the timing of the money and whether it influenced any state officials,” Bleakley said.
A civil suit does not have the authority to charge anyone with a crime such as a bribery. The suit seeks financial damages from DeVos.
The U.S. Education Department did not respond to a request for comment, but Greg McNeilly, who is a member of the Great Lakes Education Project board, called the suit a “publicity stunt” that is taking advantage of DeVos’s new position as education secretary.
The actions alleged in the suit all occurred months before President Trump was elected and chose DeVos as his top education official.
“Some people are still upset that they weren’t able to create a rigged and politically corrupt system, which is what the Detroit Education Commission proposal was,” McNeilly said. “It would have further harmed students.”
The former school board that brought the suit is the 11-member elected body that was largely powerless during much of the last decade as the city schools were run by state-appointed emergency managers. The board filed unsuccessful challenges last year after the Detroit legislation passed, creating a new school district called the Detroit Public Schools Community District. The new district is run by a new seven-member board that was elected last fall. Just one member of the old board was elected to the new board.
The old board filed a number of lawsuits during the emergency manager era, from 2009 until 2016, mostly challenging the emergency manager law.
The latest suit is the first from the board that names DeVos as a defendant. Also named are state officials, including Gov. Rick Snyder.
The suit accuses the state of under-funding special education in Detroit and seeks to block language that allows Detroit schools — but no other Michigan districts — to hire uncertified teachers. Snyder’s office declined to comment.