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Gov. Rick Perry's big donors fare well in Texas

Many of the GOP presidential candidate's mega-donors have won hefty contracts or appointments. Perry's aides vigorously dispute that any got special perks.

August 16, 2011|By Matea Gold and Melanie Mason, Washington Bureau
  • Texas Gov. Rick Perry campaigns in Iowa for the Republican presidential nomination. A Times analysis finds his mega-donors have fared well during his tenure in Texas; his aides deny the donors got special perks.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry campaigns in Iowa for the Republican presidential… (Chip Somodevilla, Getty…)

Reporting from Washington — Texas Gov. Rick Perry has powered his political career on the largesse of donors like Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, who gave the governor $1.12 million in recent years.

And donors like Simmons have found the rewards to be mutual, reaping benefits from Texas during Perry's tenure.

Perry has received a total of $37 million over the last decade from just 150 individuals and couples, who are likely to form the backbone of his new effort to win the Republican presidential nomination. The tally represented more than a third of the $102 million he had raised as governor through December, according to data compiled by the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice.

Nearly half of those mega-donors received hefty business contracts, tax breaks or appointments under Perry, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis.

Perry, campaigning Monday at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, declined to comment when asked how he separated the interests of his donors from the needs of his state. His aides vigorously dispute that his contributors received any perks.

"They get the same thing that all Texans get," said spokesman Mark Miner.

Along with Simmons — who won permission to build a low-level radioactive waste disposal site in Texas, a project that promises to generate hundreds of millions of dollars — The Times found dozens of examples in which major donors to Perry have benefited during his tenure.

Auto magnate B.J. "Red" McCombs, who contributed nearly $400,000 to the governor, is the primary financial backer for a Formula One racetrack to be built near Austin. The state has pledged $25 million a year in subsidies to support the project.

The Houston-based engineering firm of James Dannenbaum, who gave more than $320,000 to Perry, received multiple transportation contracts from the state. In 2007, Perry appointed Dannenbaum to a coveted post on the University of Texas' board of regents.

A Mississippi-based poultry company run by Joe Sanderson, who gave $165,000 to Perry, received a $500,000 grant from a state business incentive fund championed by Perry to open a chicken hatchery and processing plant in Waco.

With its mix of big-money industries like oil and campaign finance rules that allow unlimited political donations, Texas has a reputation for monied campaigns. And its elected officials have long sought to elevate their political patrons.

Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said donors had benefited more under Perry's administration than they did under recent governors such as Democrat Ann Richards and Republican George W. Bush, Perry's predecessor.

"It's not unprecedented, but we haven't seen it in a while," he said.

In his 11 years in office, Perry has smoothed the path for corporate interests by stocking state agencies with pro-business appointees, said Jim Henson, who directs the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

"The achievement is not a favor here or there," Henson said. "It's to create a regulatory apparatus that favors business."

Simmons, the second largest individual contributor to Perry, is poised to gain perhaps the most as his firm constructs the first new low-level radioactive waste disposal site in the country in three decades. The venture could not have happened without the backing of Perry, who early in his administration signed a controversial law allowing a private company to build such a facility in Texas.

Simmons' company, Waste Control Specialists, or WCS, lobbied fiercely for the measure and eventually got its license approved by Perry-appointed state regulators despite objections from some state environmental agency staff.

WCS is spending more than $500 million to build the facility in Andrews County, an isolated patch of West Texas near a hazardous waste dump the company has operated since the 1990s. When it is finished late this year, it will be able to house 2.3 million cubic feet of waste from nuclear power plants, hospitals and research facilities.

Simmons is a corporate investor who specializes in leveraged buyouts and runs a network of companies that produce chemicals and metals. With a net worth estimated by Forbes in April at $5.7 billion, he is a loyal supporter of conservative causes. In 2004, he donated $3 million to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which ran ads attacking Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry.

In a rare interview with the Dallas Business Journal in 2006, Simmons said that WCS was then losing several million dollars a year but had "a fantastic future" once its low-level radioactive waste license was approved.

"We first had to change the law to where a private company can own a license, and we did that. Then we got another law passed that said they can only issue one license. Of course, we were the only ones that applied," he told the Journal.

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