Reporting from Washington—The biggest political donor to Texas Gov. Rick Perry during his 11-year tenure has not been one of the state's oil barons or cattle ranchers, but a Washington-based organization into which Perry helped funnel millions of dollars.
The Republican Governors Assn. — which Perry chaired twice — gave him $4 million in the last five years, making it the largest single source of the $102.8 million he has raised since 2001.
The organization's donations came as Perry helped infuse the governors' group with millions of dollars from some of his major political patrons. Out of the $217 million the RGA raised between January 2006 and June 2011, $68.7 million came from 139 donors who have also given to Perry, according to a new report being released Tuesday morning by the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice.
Nearly a third of those contributors were wealthy Texans who form the backbone of Perry's finance operation — many of whom were not active donors to the RGA until 2006, when the Texas governor took on a bigger role at the organization.
Perry's time at the RGA — which he chaired in 2008 and again this year until he announced his presidential bid last month — proved lucrative for all involved. Both the RGA and its counterpart, the Democratic Governors Assn., can raise unlimited contributions from individual and corporate donors, allowing them to direct large-dollar donations to embattled governors.
With Perry as its head, the group raked in money from new donors. The Texas governor gained a national platform and money for his reelections. And his major contributors — many of whom have received state contracts, grants or appointments during his administration — had another outlet to express their support for Perry.
"It seems to be all part of a pay-to-play form of pragmatic politics," said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice.
Perry spokesman Mark Miner dismissed as "ridiculous" the idea that Perry solicited funds from donors who were seeking benefits from his administration, noting that the governor raised money around the country.
Perry first took a prominent role at the RGA in 2006, when he worked with then-Gov. Sonny Perdue of Georgia to craft a four-year strategy for the organization. In 2007, he served as the group's chief fundraiser. Between his stints as RGA chairman, he was finance chairman.
Fred Malek, a veteran fundraiser who runs the RGA's major donor outreach, said Perry personally recruited many new members to the Executive Roundtable program, which requires a minimum two-year commitment of at least $25,000 a year.
"Gov. Perry is one of the top four or five governors in the country who really got active fundraising for the RGA and made a big difference," said Mississippi-based GOP strategist Henry Barbour, who worked with him at the RGA and is now a Perry fundraiser.
Once Perry became involved with the RGA, Texas donations to the group rose from an average of 5% of the RGA's total funds between 2003 and 2005 to nearly a 15% average in the past six years. In that time, Perry's state donors gave the RGA $24.3 million, according to data provided by the Center for Responsive Politics that was analyzed by Texans for Public Justice.
The biggest contributor: Houston home builder Bob Perry (no relation), who has shelled out $11.45 million.
The timing of some of Bob Perry's RGA donations have been questioned. In October 2006, he made three contributions totaling $1.55 million. Around the same time, the RGA directed a last-minute infusion of $1 million into Rick Perry's reelection campaign, as the Houston Chronicle first reported.
Bob Perry could have given the funds directly to the governor, as there are no contribution limits in Texas. But at the time, Rick Perry was attacking his Democratic challenger, Chris Bell, for accepting $1 million from a trial attorney "sugar daddy."
Bell subsequently sued both the Perry reelection effort and the RGA, alleging that the donation was cloaked. Last year, the Perry campaign paid Bell $426,000 to settle the suit. A Travis County judge found the RGA guilty of violating campaign finance laws and ordered the organization to pay Bell $2 million. The group is appealing.
Neal T. "Buddy" Jones, an attorney for Bob Perry, said the home builder never designated his RGA contributions for a particular candidate.
"Perry is a longtime donor to many GOP causes, including the RGA, and trusts those candidates and organizations to make their own decisions about allocating resources," Jones said in a statement.
Since 2006, Bob Perry's largesse to the RGA has only grown. Last year, the home builder gave the group $6 million — including $1 million to its Michigan PAC, according to Michigan state filings. Other major Perry donors also gave to the RGA Michigan PAC, including San Antonio Spurs owner Peter Holt and Houston Texans owner Robert McNair, who each contributed $38,604.
The contributions to the Michigan PAC were part of a complicated shuffle of money the RGA executed between its various state arms in 2010. Large sums eventually made their way back to Texas.
In early October, days after Democrats announced a major ad blitz against Rick Perry, the RGA Michigan PAC poured $3 million into his reelection campaign. RGA spokesman Mike Schrimpf said donations deposited in the Michigan PAC were not intended for Perry.
"Contributions to the RGA are not earmarked for any race," he said.