Jul 1, 2015 2:09 PM

Backers of Bush nonprofit include banks, schools, lottery

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) Big-time donors to a nonprofit educational group founded by Jeb Bush, disclosed for the first time Wednesday, highlight the intersection between Bush's roles in the worlds of business, policy and politics years before he began running for president. Bush provided the names to The Associated Press.

After leaving the Florida governor's office in 2007, Bush formed the Foundation for Excellence in Education, with a mission "to build an American education system that equips every child to achieve their God-given potential." With Bush serving as president, the group attracted $46 million from donors through 2014.

That donor list shows the circular connections as Bush moved from governor to education advocate to corporate board member. Supporters in each of those stages of his career contributed to his educational foundation which, in turn, sometimes supported causes benefiting its donors. They include Rupert Murdoch's media giant News Corp., GOP mega-donor Paul Singer's foundation, energy companies such as Exxon Mobil, even the Florida Lottery.

The voluntary release of the donor names comes less than 24 hours after Bush took the unprecedented step of releasing 33 years of personal tax returns.

Both disclosures are part of a larger effort by Bush's campaign to highlight transparency. The narrative aspires to help Bush stand out among the crowded GOP Republican field provide a contrast with Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton. She has faced criticism about using a private email server and accepting donations from foreign governments through her family's nonprofit while secretary of state.

As a leading presidential candidate, however, Bush himself is facing new scrutiny about the connections and background that could follow him into the Oval Office.

"If you wanted access to Jeb Bush, one of the ways to do it is to make a large donation to one of those foundations," said Bill Allison, who until recently was a senior fellow with the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for open government.

The Bush camp noted that, during much of the time the donations came in, he was not actively exploring a presidential bid.

"Governor Bush is grateful for and encouraged by the many individuals and organizations that share his passion and commitment to transforming education in America," said spokeswoman Kristy Campbell. She said Bush is "committed to the highest levels of transparency."

Until recently, the Foundation for Excellence in Education revealed the names of its donors only from 2012 to 2014. In response to an Associated Press request seeking the full list dating to 2007, the foundation released nearly every donor during its existence, encompassing 428 contributions, with just one or two of the 187 donors still remaining anonymous.

The foundation was putting the list on its website later Wednesday.

"Over the last eight years, we raised $46 million to advance proven reform policies at the state level to give more children the opportunity to rise up and achieve success in school and life," Bush wrote this week as part of his tax return disclosure. "There is no issue more critical to our long-term success as a nation than transforming America's education system, and I'm proud of the work my foundation has done to advance meaningful reforms to put us on the right path."

The documents provided to The Associated Press show donors listed by range of contribution broken into eight categories with $5,000-$10,000 at the low end and $1 million and over at the top. The total does not include contributions below $5,000.

Records show:

Four companies and nonprofits that appointed Bush to their boards of directors or advisory boards backed the educational foundation. One, Bloomberg Philanthropies, was among the most frequent supporters, making seven donations worth between $1.2 million to $2.4 million. Bush served on Bloomberg's board from 2010-14. He also served on the boards of Jackson Healthcare, Rayonier Inc. and an affiliate of CNL Bank, each of which gave a lesser amount to the foundation.

Bush's education nonprofit provided $1.1 million in public information grants to eight states in 2013, its tax form shows. In recent years, at least nine charter school and education-related donors to the Foundation for Excellence in Education won contracts in those eight states, revealing the mirrored missions of donors and the foundation.

The most frequent individual donor to Bush's group was Florida citrus grower Bill Becker and his wife, Mary Ann Becker, who made eight donations worth between $225,008 and $450,000. A longtime Bush family supporter, Becker once provided Jeb Bush the use of his Cessna airplane for campaign travel. With Jeb Bush in office, Becker was among supporters writing the governor seeking appointments or funding, the AP reported earlier this year. "It seems whenever I am in touch with you it is for a favor and I hate to have to do so again," Becker wrote in 2006, seeking citrus industry funding. Becker has not responded to interview requests.

Major corporations backed Bush with big money. The most generous organization was the Walton Family Foundation, formed by Wal-Mart's founders, which gave from $3.5 million to more than $6 million. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Wal-Mart Foundation gave $35,002 to $80,000 more. Microsoft founder Bill Gates' foundation gave between $3 million and more than $5 million. Murdoch's News Corp. made three contributions, at $500,001 to $1 million apiece. The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, built from the family real estate empire, gave more than $2 million.

Total donations steadily increased over time, going from a 2007 maximum of $335,000 to $8.4 million in 2011 and as much as $12.2 million in 2014.

Education outfits such as Charter Schools USA, the publishing and education company Pearson PLC and Renaissance Learning were frequent contributors. So were financial groups and big businesses, with the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation giving from $1.6 million to $3.25 million and the SunTrust Bank Foundation $300,003 to $750,000. Exxon Mobil Corp., Duke Energy and BP America made nine contributions combined.

Years earlier, following a series of 2005 hurricanes that battered Florida and other states, a BP public affairs official had written Bush: "And should you decide to run for higher office in the future, please know I would be there to help."

Bush's home state businesses delivered funding. Publix Super Market Charities made seven donations. Bush's Coral Gables company, Jeb Bush & Associates, gave from $125,002-$305,000.

His nonprofit even hit the jackpot with the Florida Lottery receiving three donations, worth $10,001 to $25,000, from 2008 to 2010. A spokeswoman said the lottery doesn't donate to groups, but instead sponsors events "to help raise awareness of the lottery's contributions to education." In all, the group said it supported six Foundation for Excellence in Education events over six years, worth $82,500.

The disclosures were also noteworthy because of who wasn't among the donors.

While Hillary Clinton played a leading role in an organization that accepted millions of dollars from foreign entities, Bush's group accepted money from just one international source. British-based Pearson PLC, which has a subsidiary in the United States, donated between $125,004 and $250,000, according to information provided by Bush's team.

While Bush has released the donor list for this foundation, he has yet to do so for another educational nonprofit he founded after leaving the governor's office, the Foundation for Florida's Future. That leaves unknown the source of over $2.3 million given from 2011 to 2013 to a group formed "to make Florida's education system a model for the nation."

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Associated Press writer Gary Fineout in Tallahassee, Florida, contributed to this report.

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