Like Perry, White Takes Contributions From Appointees

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White discusses ethics during a recent news conference from the Travis County Democratic Party headquarters.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White is again attacking incumbent Gov. Rick Perry for accepting campaign donations from political appointees — but the former Houston mayor is no stranger to the practice, according to a Texas Tribune analysis of campaign and city records.

White has raised nearly $2 million over his years in public life from people he appointed to boards and commissions, the analysis shows. In numerous cases, he would have exceeded the limits his own campaign recommended in a proposal unveiled Wednesday. White's plan would place a $10,000 cap on donations from people selected for state government posts, such as university regents.

White has in the past appointed generous political donors to boards and commissions, including those overseeing the management of public access television, libraries and parks — dozens of whom exceed his proposed cap.

Upon learning of the Tribune’s analysis, the Perry campaign turned White’s argument against him Tuesday, charging “hypocrisy.” The White campaign did not dispute the analysis but insisted that White did not, as mayor, consider political donations when selecting appointees. White spokeswoman Katy Bacon noted that Perry has accepted more than $10 million — and perhaps much as $14 million — from appointees to state posts, including hundreds of thousands of dollars from people who served as university regents, transportation commissioners and parks board members. Perry also has been governor for 10 years and constitutionally is required to appoint more officials than a Houston mayor.

Many of the White donors who also served during his administration are prominent Houstonians who are generally active in the city’s civic, social and philanthropic scenes. Topping the list is Michael Zilkha, a wealthy energy investor who hosted one of White’s first events as a mayoral candidate. Zilkha has donated more than $260,000 to White over the years, though almost all the money came years after his service on the Houston Arts Alliance.

 

White's Top Appointee/Donors

White Donors Amount Board/Commission Appointment
Michael Zilkha $264,900 Houston Arts Alliance
Maconda O'Connor $120,000 Houston Downtown Park Corp.
Franci Crane $76,800 Houston Media Source
Nancy Kinder $74,800 Houston Downtown Park Corp.
James Elkins III $64,063 Houston Parks Board
Robert Tudor $56,400 Houston Library Board
Andrew Segal $49,200 Three reinvestment zones
Richard Campo $49,600 Buffalo Bayou Partnership, Convention Center Hotel Corp.
Jack Blanton $44,380 Buffalo Bayou Partnership
David Solomon $37,200 Convention Center Hotel Corp.

Source: Tribune research; Texas Ethics Commission; Federal Election Commission; City of Houston

Other White appointee-donors said their selection didn’t violate any legal or ethical standards — past Houston mayors and Texas governors, of course, received donations from political appointees — but they acknowledged the perception that elected officials remember their supporters, and vice versa.

"Always, always, there's influence peddling, and there are highly sought-after positions," says Houston attorney David Berg, a White donor who served on the Houston Area Water Corp. "I know Bill White very well. And you could not show me a stack of evidence high enough to prove to me that he'd ever do anything dishonest or that he would somehow profit from office."

"However, that is not to say that you don't reward your friends in politics," Berg says. "You reward your friends and punish your enemies. That's the oldest rule in the book."

Berg believes many appointees seek appointments purely out of a sense of civic responsibility. “Does it make you want to contribute to the guy who appointed you? Probably, yes. Such is life."

White also appointed Harrison Williams, executive vice president of Albrecht & Associates, an oil & gas divestment firm, to the Houston Read Commission, a nonprofit that works on adult literacy. At the time, it was out of money and in need of quick intervention. Williams had to hire a new executive director, but first, he had to fire half of the staff.

Williams says too many restrictions could take talented people out of the pool of appointees. But, he says, it's probably a good idea to limit contributions after an appointment has been made, as White proposed Tuesday.

"I had given money to Bill, and I had raised a lot of money for Bill, and in return, that's what I was asked to do. Was that a reward?" he asks, laughing. "There are a lot of appointed jobs that are thankless."

 

To conduct the analysis, the Tribune requested electronic contributions data from the White campaign. (The City Council only approved an electronic-filing system in 2006, so records for White’s first two campaigns only exist in paper format). The campaign declined — even though White released the same records, in electronic format, to reporters during his tenure as mayor. So the Tribune obtained the records from the city of Houston, under the Texas Public Information Act and hired a Plano-based data management company to digitize the records.

The records were then combined with those of White’s donations from his aborted U.S. Senate campaign and with records of the money he’s raised since entering the governor’s race in December. The Tribune also obtained a list of White’s more than 1,200 appointees, which the city released under the public information act.

The data show that White received at least $1.8 million from more than 100 appointees. They gave a median donation of about $5,000 — coincidentally, the maximum allowed in Houston during an election cycle. The bulk of the appointees’ total came during White’s gubernatorial race because, under state law, contributions aren’t capped.

In response, a Perry spokesperson says White’s ethics plan isn’t sincere.

“It’s the height of hypocrisy to criticize someone when Bill White was, in fact, taking large amounts of money from people who served under him,” says the spokesman, Mark Miner. “He’s a typical politician that tries to have it both ways, but the people of Texas can see through this.”

While acknowledging White's appointment of donors, his campaign notes that the contributors highlighted by the Tribune represent only a small fraction of the people the mayor appointed during his six-year tenure running Houston. The nearly $2 million they gave also accounts for a small portion of White’s overall fundraising total since 2003, about $30 million, his campaign says.

Bacon, the White spokeswoman, says the former mayor always sought to appoint qualified people without regard to their donations or political leanings. Some are wealthy philanthropists, for example, who fit well on boards on which charitable fundraising is required.

Many are Republicans. Nancy Kinder, a fundraising “pioneer” for former president George W. Bush, donated more than $70,000 since White first ran for mayor. He appointed her as chair of the Houston Downtown Park Conservancy, an entity established to oversee Discovery Green park, one of his signature accomplishments.

Bacon says White’s activities pale in comparison to those of the governor, whom White has also attacked for cozy relationships with former staffers-turned-lobbyists.

“Bill White is setting forth a limit for political contributions from appointees, and in Bill White’s administration people will not be allowed to raise money from those that they regulate,” she says, referring in the latter instance to a Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission member who sought campaign donations from restaurant and bar owners. “This is a dramatic contrast from Rick Perry’s status quo of using his state government as a political machine,” she says.

Others, though, aren’t convinced, suggesting that White’s history of appointing contributors makes his reform proposals ring hollow.

“He is attacking Rick Perry for something that, essentially, he’s guilty of himself,” says Peggy Venable, Texas director for Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit organization that promotes free-market policies. “Would he really change Austin for the better?” 

About this story: Both lists were cross-checked using a database manager to identifies donors and appointees with identical first and last names and residential cities. Where possible, ZIP codes also were used to confirm donors' and appointees' identities. Obtaining exact figures for the precise number of donors and the total dollar amount of their donations is difficult, because neither data set contains street addresses needed to make full-proof identifications. For that reason, the Tribune limited its analysis to donations of more than $1,000 in an effort to reduce the pool of contributors and avoid misidentifying people with common names. No names were published without manual identification of both a donation and appointment.

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