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Non-Profit as Trade Association? (Bush Foundation Allegations)

If anybody had time yesterday to browse the In the Public Interest collection of emails from the Foundation for Excellence in Education, it wasn't me. I've read a few accounts, such as the one on Valerie Strauss's blog, so the following is a short, initial impression based on someone else's summary of a few items from the collection.

  • I separate the allegations that the foundation is serving essentially as a trade association from the allegations of personal conflicts of interest. They are two very different issues, though they are being treated as identical. One is a question of organizational role and transparency: Foundation for Excellence in Education looks very different from the Foundation to Advance the Testing and Online Huckster Industries. The other is a question about whether a non-profit is being used to serve the financial interest of a key person (Jeb Bush).
  • The question of foundation-as-trade-association is one I am not competent to judge. If the charter for the foundation is consistent with indirectly advancing the interests of one or more industries, and none of the specific activities violate federal law involving non-profits, then the worst one can say is that the foundation is operating on the marginal side of ethics (and possibly not that, depending on the range of non-profit activities). Journalists can do some good work here by consulting with tax attorneys with expertise in non-profits. But we need a little homework on the legal front before condemning FEE. 
  • The question of a personal conflict of interest is both more serious and simpler to resolve. In the Public Interest is strongly suggesting that Jeb Bush personally benefitted by FEE's pushing the use of SendHub, a tech firm in which Bush became a visible investor in late 2012. One of SendHub's founders is a former Bush aide, but note that "late 2012" date (October, I think)? At least one of the emails from Patricia Levesque mentioning SendHub is from February 2012. I could not find the other emails mentioning SendHub on the website with the documents, but if the pushing of SendHub is from the first half of 2012 or earlier, it looks like casual back-scratching of people in the same circle. The only catch: Garrett Johnson (from SendHub) sits on the board of the Foundation for Florida's Future, which also employes Levesque. That relationship could present a conflict of interest, depending on when Johnson began on the board (again, journalists need to talk with an expert in non-profit management). But unless there is an email pushing SendHub after Bush became an investor, it's not an obvious conflict of interest for Bush personally.

I think most readers of this blog would correctly infer that I strongly disagree on a broad range of education policy with Governor Bush, Patricia Levesque, and other staff of both FEE and the Foundation for Florida's Future. It is very tempting to go after your policy opponents if something appears to present shady dealings that could be a political trump card. I don't see that here. Right now, all we have are records of some transactions and communications. Depending on non-profit law and FEE's charter, that could mean something illegal or squat. But no one has yet done the homework to justify the allegation of an improper conflict of interest. At most, all anyone has demonstrated is that Patricia Levesque is an effective trade association representative, no matter who's employing her.

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Sherman Dorn

Sherman Dorn is the Director of the Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation at the Arizona State University Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, and editor...