BOISE – A secretive campaign group that claimed to be providing Idaho parents a voice in the state’s school reform referendum fight actually was bankrolled in large part by an Idaho grocery heir and by the billionaire mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg.
That news surfaced when Education Voters of Idaho, acting under a judge’s order, filed its campaign finance disclosure report on Wednesday afternoon. Bloomberg gave $200,000 to EVI, which financed TV ads across the state backing Idaho Propositions 1, 2 and 3. His donation was eclipsed only by that of Albertsons heir Joseph B. Scott, who gave $250,000.
Bloomberg is the third-term mayor of New York, an independent, a former Republican and former Democrat, and one of the nation’s richest men. He is pro-choice, pro-gun control, and made national waves this year with his move to ban the sale of sugary soft drinks in servings bigger than 16 ounces on public health grounds.
He’s clashed with New York City’s public employee unions, including during a transit workers strike in 2005. As mayor he took direct control over the city’s public schools, where he pushed for reforms – including merit pay for teachers – and clashed with the teachers’ union.
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter said his wife, Lori Otter, hit Bloomberg up for the donation during the Allen and Co. Sun Valley Conference, which attracts movers and shakers to the Idaho resort each July. “He’s been interested in education, and Lori, I think was telling him about it while we were up there, and he said, ‘Give me a call, I’ll see if I can help you,’ ” Otter said.
Scott is the grandson of late grocery store magnate Joe Albertson. He’s the chairman of the board of the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, which has donated millions toward public education projects in Idaho, from funding the Idaho Education Network to giving grants to Idaho school districts.
The foundation ran full-page ads in newspapers across Idaho in 2011 promoting state schools Superintendent Tom Luna’s “Students Come First” school reform plan, which is now up for possible repeal in Propositions 1, 2 and 3. It includes rolling back teachers’ collective bargaining rights; imposing a new merit-pay bonus system; and technology boosts including laptop computers for all high school students and a new focus on online learning.
Scott made millions with his own investments in for-profit online education firm K12 Inc., according to the Associated Press, even as the family foundation handed out grants in Idaho to increase online learning.
Otter said he asked Scott to donate to EVI. “And he was very gracious,” Otter said.
The Albertson Foundation said in a statement that Scott’s donation “was made by Mr. Scott as a private, concerned citizen,” and the foundation wasn’t involved. Scott, in his own statement, said, “I have every right to support causes about which I am passionate.”
EVI fought hard to keep its donations secret but reluctantly complied with the court order Wednesday, saying it still is contemplating an appeal. The reports showed that the group collected more than $641,000 in donations. The two biggest givers, by far, were Bloomberg and Scott.
Others who gave $10,000 or more included Hagadone Hospitality of Coeur d’Alene, $15,000; Republican Governors Public Policy Committee, $50,000; Foster Friess of Jackson, Wyo., who financed a SuperPAC for GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, $25,000; John D. Bryan, of Lake Oswego, Ore., one of the top national funders of the Club for Growth, $10,000; Intermountain Gas Co., $10,000; Idaho Forest Group, $10,000; M3 Eagle LLC, $10,000; and Clear Springs Foods of Buhl, $10,000.
Other donors included Frank E. Baxter, of Los Angeles, ambassador to Uruguay under President George W. Bush, $5,000; Simplot Corp., $5,000; John J. Fisher, of San Francisco, heir to the Gap stores fortune and co-owner of the Oakland A’s, $5,000; and 13D Research LLC in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, $5,000.
Most of the donations were large, and many were from out of state. Of the group’s 25 donors, 10 were from outside Idaho; the out-of-state donors’ total of $320,000 nearly matched the $321,000 from in-state donors. Twelve of the 25 donors were businesses or organizations, and 13 were individuals.
“As far as corporations, those other organizations, remember they all have employees, and those employees have kids,” Otter said. “And they also want to look forward to tomorrow’s workforce, and they know that a good education is an important part of that.”
The group maintained that as a 501(c)4 nonprofit it was exempt from Idaho’s Sunshine Law requirement to disclose its donors, but Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa strongly disagreed. When EVI rebuffed his demand for disclosure, he sued, and on Monday, 4th District Judge Mike Wetherell ordered the group to comply with the Sunshine Law by 3 p.m. on Wednesday. The group filed precisely at that hour.
EVI is chaired by former state Rep. Debbie Field, R-Boise, who also is Otter’s campaign manager. Its co-executive director is John Foster, a former aide to Democratic congressman Walt Minnick.
Field and Foster, in a letter delivered to Ysursa on Wednesday, wrote, “We want to make it clear to you and to the public that our actions were based solely on what we believe are our duties to our donors, and our duty to protect our rights as a corporation under Idaho code, the Idaho Constitution and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. We are proud of our donors and humbled by their strong support for long-term education reform in Idaho.”
Field said earlier that EVI offered a way for people to donate to the campaign for Propositions 1, 2 and 3 without fear of “intimidation” by teachers unions that oppose the measures. Yes for Idaho Education, a separate campaign group for the measures that has disclosed all its donors, has raised nearly $1 million.
Ysursa, who like Otter is a Republican, said EVI has now complied with Idaho’s Sunshine Law. “This is what we always wanted; we wanted disclosure,” he said. “Let the people decide, with all the information in front of them, who gave what to a ballot measure committee. That’s certainly required by the Sunshine Law that 78 percent of the folks voted for way back in 1974.”
He added, “We do think this will send a message. This office takes its duties very seriously on campaign disclosure, and when we came up across this scenario, we felt compelled that we had to go into court and follow the law.”