Friday, August 27, 2004

The chief financial backer of Swift Boat Veterans of Truth and its television ad challenging Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry's military record is a wealthy Texas homebuilder known for his deep pockets and aversion to the limelight.

Texas backer of anti-Kerry ads keeps low profile

Bob Perry provided at least $100,000

By KRISTEN HAYS, Associated Press

HOUSTON - The chief financial backer of Swift Boat Veterans of Truth and its television ad challenging Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry's military record is a wealthy Texas homebuilder known for his deep pockets and aversion to the limelight.

Bob J. Perry, 71, provided at least $100,000 to help start the veterans group at the urging of his friend John O'Neill, a Houston attorney who co-wrote "Unfit for Command," a book which questions Kerry's military service.

Perry donates freely to conservatives causes in Texas and across the nation, but records show he's rarely tried to gain the ear of the politicians he's helped elect.

A man of contrasts, Perry founded a home-building company that reported revenues of $420 million in 2002. But he and his wife, Doylene, live in a $662,000 five-bedroom house in Nassau Bay, a modest Houston suburb near NASA's Johnson Space Center, rather than a multi-million dollar mansion in River Oaks, Houston's wealthiest enclave.

He's given more than $5.2 million to Texas candidates and committees since 2000, according to Texans for Public Justice, a non-partisan group that tracks campaign contributions, yet Texas' top GOP donor is rarely seen at fancy fundraisers or hobnobbing with the political elite.

White House Senior Advisor Karl Rove told Fox television's Brit Hume this week that he's known Perry for 25 years, and he was one of the few wealthy Texans "willing to write checks to support Republican candidates."

Rove said he had not spoken with Perry in more than a year, and he "certainly did not discuss with him or anybody else in the Swift Boat leadership what they're doing."

Perry, who was in Mexico this week, declined an interview with the Associated Press and referred questions to his recently-hired spokesman Bill Miller, an Austin political consultant. Miller said Perry's donation to the Swift Boat Veterans stemmed from his belief in the group's message.

"In my conversations with Bob, he just said, 'John contacted me, told me what he was trying to do, and it sounded good to me.' That's really the way he does it," Miller said. "People call him and pitch him, and if he likes what he hears, he'll write a check."

Perry's funding of the ads prompted John Cobarruvias, a Kerry supporter and member of a Nassau Bay Democrats group, to organize a Saturday protest at Perry's home and a nearby Perry Homes sales office.

"He's very elusive, he doesn't get around. He just wants to throw his money around," Cobarruvias said. "We looked at this, and we said we need to go defend Kerry. Then we stopped and said this is not about Kerry, it's about all veterans. He has no right whatsoever to question any veteran's medals."

The ads, which ran in three key swing states earlier this month, questioned Kerry's wartime service in Vietnam for which he received five medals. The ads said Kerry didn't deserve his Purple Hearts, lied to get his Bronze Star and Silver Star and unfairly branded all veterans with his 1971 congressional testimony about atrocities in Vietnam.

The Kerry campaign contends the veterans group is a front for President Bush's re-election campaign. Kerry, a Navy swift boat skipper during the war, said criticism of his decorated service in Vietnam has "become so petty it's almost pathetic in a way." Bush denounced the ads Monday after they were no longer on the air.

Perry's support extends to President Bush. He donated $46,000 to Bush's 1994 and 1998 Texas gubernatorial campaigns, and $2,000 to his re-election effort.

Perry is also the top individual contributor to Gov. Rick Perry, Bush's successor, giving $225,000 since 2001. Perry and the governor are not related.

While Bush benefited from Perry's open checkbook, documents obtained from the Texas archives do not show Perry ever received any special board or committee appointments from the governors. Perry did write each of them about two different pieces of legislation that he disagreed with.

In April 1997, Perry asked Bush to oppose a bill that dealt with title insurance, which passed the state Senate but never made it out of the House.

In May 1999, Perry urged then-Lt. Gov. Rick Perry to block passage of a bill he contended would have an adverse impact on the willingness of judges to issue summary judgments, or to dismiss a case by finding for one side or the other before trial. About a month later, Rick Perry wrote back to Bob Perry, noting that Bush had vetoed the bill, which had passed in both chambers.

Miller said Perry considers Rick Perry a friend, but they seldom see each other and don't talk often.

"Perry doesn't play golf or anything like that," Miller said. "He doesn't come to Austin, doesn't do social events or political events. Just like when O'Neill called him up - he's not incommunicado, but he's not a schmoozer at all."

Jared Woodfill, a Houston attorney and chairman of the Harris County Republican Party, said Perry's motives for giving are clear.

"He's very generous with his money, but he doesn't try to get his name out there and seek the limelight," Woodfill said. "He believes in electing good, conservative Republicans."

Perry was born in Bosque County, about 50 miles south of Fort Worth, where the major industry is farming and ranching, and more than one-third of households earn less than $15,000 annually.

His father was a teacher and later became dean of students at Baylor University, where Perry studied history. Perry taught high school after graduating from Baylor in 1954, but in 1968 he switched professions and established Perry Homes. The private Houston-based company is now one of the largest builders of homes and townhomes in Texas.

Perry Homes vice president John Krugh declined to say how active Perry is in running the company. Perry and the company are members of various business groups, such as the Texas Association of Builders and the Greater Houston Partnership, but he doesn't serve on their boards or participate much in their events.

In 1978, former Texas Republican Gov. Bill Clements introduced Perry to state politics. He asked Perry to help him raise money for his first successful gubernatorial campaign. Since then, Perry has continued to give to candidates and causes, with donations getting larger over time.

"I have been fortunate to gain more financial strength in recent years, and I made a decision to be more involved in campaigns that I think are important," Perry told the Houston Chronicle in a rare 2002 interview.

In the 2002 election cycle, Perry was the state's largest individual contributor to the Texas Republican Party ($905,000) and to the campaigns of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst ($115,000) and Attorney General Greg Abbott, who got $387,500 from Perry and 150,000 from Perry's wife. Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick received $10,000.

Since 2000, Perry has also given to several political groups, known as 527s because of an IRS code provision. Along with Swift Boat, he gave $165,000 to Majority Leader Tom DeLay's Texans for a Republican Majority and $105,000 to the Texas Association of Business.

A Texas grand jury is investigating whether those two groups broke any state campaign finance laws when they funneled $2.5 million in corporate contributions to Republican state House candidates during the 2002 election.

Perry's donations this election cycle include $10,000 to the pro-Republican Club for Growth and at least $19,250 to federal candidates and party committees, according the Center for Public Integrity, which tracks political contributions.

DeLay, a Houston Republican, said during a visit to Texas this week that Perry gives to Republican candidates because he "truly believes in his country."

"He believes in his principles and backs them up," DeLay said. "John Kerry, if you criticize him, he loses it, and you're seeing part of that."