Watchdog group demands Congress investigate if Betsy DeVos knew about efforts to spy on teachers

DeVos' brother, Blackwater founder Erik Prince, reportedly recruited an former spy to infiltrate a teacher's union

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published March 11, 2020 2:36PM (EDT)

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

A watchdog group called Congress to investigate Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos after a report revealed efforts by her brother to spy on a Michigan teachers' union.

DeVos' brother, Blackwater founder Erik Prince, recruited a former British spy to oversee an operation to infiltrate the American Federation of Teacher's Michigan chapter on behalf of the far-right group Project Veritas, The New York Times reported earlier this week.

An operative under former MI-6 spy Richard Seddon successfully infiltrated the office to steal files and secretly record officials in an effort to "damage the organization," according to the report. The operative "copied a great many documents" and recorded a local union leader discussing DeVos, a longtime opponent of teacher's unions.

The operation was part of an effort to target "groups hostile to the Trump agenda," The Times reported. The operative also sought to infiltrate the campaign of Rep. Abigail Spanberger's, D-Va., but was discovered and fired.

The operation led the AFT's Michigan office to sue Project Veritas for more than $3 million in damages. The suit called the group a "vigilante organization, which claims to be dedicated to exposing corruption. It is, instead, an entity dedicated to a specific political agenda."

The progressive watchdog group Accountable.US called on the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Tuesday to investigate whether DeVos had any involvement in the reported scheme. 

"The involvement of DeVos' brother in this scheme to spy on a labor organization in their shared home state of Michigan raises serious questions about what role the Education Secretary played in it, particularly in light of DeVos' history of hostility with the same union," the group said in a letter to the committee published on its website.

DeVos' family has long donated to groups that oppose teachers' unions and has often publicly criticized them herself. She argued on the Fox Business Network in 2018 that teachers' unions have a "stranglehold on many of the politicians in this country, both at the federal level and at the state-level, and they are very resistant to the kind of changes that need to happen."

"They are very protective of what they know, and there are protective, really protective of adult jobs and not really focused on what is right for individual students," she claimed. "We have a lot of forces that are protecting what is and what is known — a lot of forces protecting the status quo. We need to combat those, break them and again empower and allow parents to make decisions on behalf of their individual children because they know their children best."

Accountable.US argued that there was no way that DeVos did not know what her brother was up to, given her record.

"It stretches the imagination to the breaking point to believe her brother never at least mentioned his intel operation to her," the letter said. "At the end of the day, who would benefit more from this ill-gotten information than the Education Secretary at war with the union?"

Prince has long been a controversial figure since he founded Blackwater, the mercenary firm whose contractors were sentenced to more than a decade in prison after they were convicted of slaughtering unarmed Iraqi civilians in 2007.

Prince has since acted as an informal adviser to Trump, even meeting with Russian oligarchs to discuss a potential backchannel between the Trump team and Russia in 2017, according to former special counsel Robert Mueller's report. Prince faces potential criminal charges after he lied to Congress about his efforts.

DeVos has sought to distance herself from her brother's sordid career. The Wall Street Journal reported in December that she paid a reputation management firm to "suppress Google search hits connecting her to her brother."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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American Federation Of Teachers Betsy Devos Brief Donald Trump Erik Prince Politics Project Veritas