Thursday, August 17, 2006

A handful of super-rich political contributors, giving at least $25,000 a year, will put at least $10 million into Gov. Rick Perry's re-election treasury – forming an elite fundraising corps that the campaign calls the Century Council. Read the article at the Dallas Morning News

Perry's top donors get business, appointments

Governor denies connection

August 17, 2006
By WAYNE SLATER / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – A handful of super-rich political contributors, giving at least $25,000 a year, will put at least $10 million into Gov. Rick Perry's re-election treasury – forming an elite fundraising corps that the campaign calls the Century Council.

In exchange, donors who pledge to give at least $100,000 get invitations to private luncheons with the governor. And many are beneficiaries of government business, plum appointments and other state largesse.

Three Century Council members have lucrative contracts to help build Mr. Perry's multibillion-dollar toll-road initiative. The state has deposited millions in investment funds operated by three other top-tier givers. And 16 are Perry appointees to coveted boards, including the Parks and Wildlife Commission and state university regent boards.

A Perry campaign spokesman says the donors get no special treatment.

But the number of super-donors dwarfs anything that Mr. Perry's three most recent predecessors had, according to a computer-generated review of contribution records.

Mr. Perry has attracted twice as many $25,000 contributions as fellow Republican George W. Bush did in 1994 or 1998. Mr. Perry has more than five times as many as Democrat Ann Richards had in her 1990 campaign and Republican Bill Clements had in 1986, according to the records.

Advocates of campaign finance reform say the big money is designed to buy access.

"The kinds of people who step up to the plate to give this kind of money tend to be people who want something from government," said Andrew Wheat of Texans for Public Justice, a nonprofit group that tracks campaign contributions.

'They need not give'

Robert Black, a Perry campaign spokesman, denied the charge, saying donors give money because they support his stewardship as governor.

"They believe in his leadership, his vision for the future and where he wants to lead the state," Mr. Black said. "If they have any ulterior motives, they need not give."

Texas law does not limit the size of campaign contributions, and previous governors have relied on big givers to help fuel their election campaigns.

Mr. Perry's rivals also have big-dollar donors, although in far fewer numbers than the governor.

Democratic nominee Chris Bell's biggest contributor is Houston auto dealer Ricardo Weitz, who has provided airplanes for the candidate to use, a contribution worth $171,900.

Hair products executive John McCall of Spicewood tops independent challenger Kinky Friedman's donors with $851,000 in contributions and donated office space.

Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who is also running for governor as an independent, has among her biggest donors Beaumont lawyer Walter Umphrey, who has given her $500,000, and Houston lawyer John Eddie Williams, who has given $450,000.

Such big-money contributions have become an issue in this year's governor's race. Mr. Perry's campaign has criticized Mrs. Strayhorn for accepting $1.5 million since 2002 from Ryan & Co., a Dallas-based tax-consulting firm that has represented several businesses disputing tax bills from Mrs. Strayhorn's office.

A state auditor's report last year said Mrs. Strayhorn's office had settled tax cases totaling $461 million within a year of receiving contributions from such companies. The audit did not allege wrongdoing but recommended that candidates not accept donations from those with interests before their office.

$25,000 a year and up

Among Mr. Perry's donors, at least 85 are members of the Century Council, who have contributed at least $25,000 a year toward Mr. Perry's re-election since his last campaign in 2002. Some have given much more.

His biggest contributor, Houston homebuilder Bob Perry (no relation), has given more than $700,000 since Rick Perry became governor.

In 2003, the Legislature created a state agency to resolve construction disputes between homebuilders and consumers. The governor appointed the Houston homebuilder's corporate counsel to the agency's governing board.

Mr. Black said there is no connection between contributions and state appointments or contracts.

"These are major donors that have been with the governor for a long time," Mr. Black said.

Corridor players

Three highway contractors benefiting from the Trans-Texas Corridor have been major Perry contributors since the late 1990s.

H.B. Zachry, whose San Antonio construction company is a partner in the project, began giving annual contributions of $10,000 after Mr. Perry was elected lieutenant governor in 1998. After Mr. Perry succeeded Mr. Bush as governor, the contributions grew to at least $25,000 a year.

Two other construction executives whose companies have state contracts as part of Mr. Perry's toll-road initiative – James Dannenbaum and James Pitcock, both of Houston – first gave $25,000 contributions to Mr. Perry when he was lieutenant governor.

The Texas Department of Transportation, which is overseen by Perry appointees, chooses the contractors. And some Perry contributors were unsuccessful bidders on the project.

A review of campaign records indicates that Fluor Enterprises Inc., which headed one consortium whose bid to develop the project was not selected by the state, gave $12,500 to Mr. Perry in 2002. Another unsuccessful consortium included the Houston law firm of Vinson & Elkins, which is among Mr. Perry's $25,000-a-year givers.

Duly appointed?

Appointment to university and agency boards is a traditional way that governors have rewarded donors.

In Mr. Perry's case, three members of the Century Council have been appointed to the Parks and Wildlife Commission, including Houston auto-wholesaler Tom Friedkin.

Mr. Friedkin not only has contributed $200,000 to Mr. Perry's re-election, he loaned his private plane to fly the governor on a political trip in March to speak to a national Republican group meeting in Tennessee.

Other big-dollar appointees include insurance executive Larry Anders and real estate developer J. Frank Miller of Dallas, each giving more than $200,000 and becoming Texas Tech regents under Mr. Perry; Dallas investor Robert Rowling, a $200,000 contributor and University of Texas regent; and former TXU executive Erle Nye, a $150,000 donor and Texas A&M regent.

And some members of the Century Council have benefited from state investments.

The Austin-based University of Texas Investment Management Co. oversees about $16 billion worth of investments for the UT and Texas A&M Systems. The governor appoints the board.

According to state records, the company has invested $99 million with SCF Partners, which was founded by L.E. Simmons of Houston. The state also has invested millions of dollars with the firms headed by James Wilson of Sugar Land and Jeff Sanderfer of Austin.