By Matea Gold and Melanie Mason, Washington Bureau
August 16, 2011
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.
The only other contender for the license, Utah-based Envirocare, dropped its bid in 2001 after litigation with WCS over the competing plans.
After a five-year review process, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, a board appointed by Perry, decided in a 2-1 vote to issue WCS two disposal licenses, one for waste from uranium mills and the other for low-level radioactive waste.
Initially, the site was to handle only waste from Texas, Vermont and federal sources. This year, another state commission largely made up of Perry appointees voted to open the site to nuclear waste from 34 other states, a measure codified by the Legislature in May. Shortly after Perry signed the legislation, Simmons donated $100,000 to Americans for Rick Perry, an independent group backing Perry's presidential bid.
WCS spokesman Chuck McDonald said that Simmons' connections to Perry did not work to his company's advantage and in fact made him "an easy target."
"It made the state redouble its efforts to be thorough," he said. Simmons declined to comment.
But some former state environmental staff members and officials say they believe Simmons' political clout outweighed concerns about public safety.
After spending three years reviewing WCS' proposal, a team of geologists and engineers concluded in 2007 that a water table was as close as 14 feet to the bottom of the proposed site and that groundwater was likely to intrude into the disposal units. The team recommended that the license be denied.
Glenn Shankle, then the agency's executive director, ordered the team to draft a license. Shankle said he did not recall being made aware of the staff's opposition. Concerns were raised in one meeting about water saturation, he said, but the footprint of the site was shrunk to address that issue.
"I never got a recommendation from staff to not to proceed," he said.
Glenn Lewis, a former state environmental staff member who worked on the WCS application for four years, disputed that recollection, saying Shankle acknowledged the staff's concerns in a meeting.
Shankle has since left the environmental agency and now works as a lobbyist for WCS. He maintains that he never felt any political influence to give WCS a green light.
"I look at all the science and the law and just go by that," he said.
McDonald, the WCS spokesman, said concerns about the potential of water seepage were thoroughly addressed. "Ensuing data revealed the site was more dry and more stable than we originally thought," he said.
But Lewis was so disgusted with the outcome that he took an early retirement and left the agency. Two other staffers also quit.
"This is a stunningly horrible public policy to grant a license to this company for that site," Lewis said in an interview. "Something had to happen to overcome the quite blatant shortcoming of that application. … The only thing I know in Texas that has the potential to do that is money in politics."
The sole commissioner to oppose the license did so after unsuccessfully seeking a hearing to evaluate the scientific evidence about the groundwater location.
"I think there was a lot of pressure on everyone to basically keep that train steaming ahead," said Larry Soward, who was not reappointed when his term ended in August 2009. "I think the other two commissioners knew full well it was a very important matter to the governor's office."
Those commissioners, Bryan Shaw and Buddy Garcia, voted for the licenses. They declined to comment through a spokesman, who said only that "the commissioners make their decisions based on science and the law."
As the commission was considering WCS' licenses in 2007 and 2008, Simmons met twice with Perry, according to details of the governor's calendar obtained by The Times through a Texas public records law request.
Perry spokesman Miner noted that local residents supported the facility. He called suggestions that the commissioners were pressured to give the license to WCS "political attacks that have never been substantiated."
Staff writers Seema Mehta in Des Moines and Doug Smith in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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