Billionaire Former Regent on Donations and Appointments

Robert Rowling — the Dallas billionaire who is one of Gov. Rick Perry’s top donors — scoffs at the notion that the governor gave him a “plum” appointment to the University of Texas System Board of Regents in exchange for campaign cash.

“The whole idea that the big donors give [Perry] money and get the appointment in return? My gosh, spare me,” Rowling said in a frank interview Tuesday with the Tribune. “I already had good football tickets — you know what I’m saying?

“I’d pay not to do it. What’s the plum of being on the board of regents? I worried about the decisions we made all the time, spending all that money — billions and billions of dollars of taxpayer money and student money. And with UTIMCO, investing billions,” he said, referring to the University of Texas Investment Management Company, whose board he chaired.

The Tribune reached out to Rowling because, among the 171 regents seated over the last decade, he ranked among the top 10 donors to Perry's campaigns. (See our story and data application.) Rowling is the only one of the 10 so far who returned a call for comment, speaking freely on a topic most regent-donors have declined to address. While he acknowledged the influence of donations on the selection of regents, he discounted the notion of a quid pro quo, instead laying out a much more nuanced narrative of money and politics.

Rowling certainly didn’t need to be a regent. He’s made his own fortune, first in the oil and gas business and currently through TRT Holdings, which controls Gold’s Gym and Omni Hotels, among other entities. He concedes that he might be more cavalier about the benefit to his life and career in being a regent — bluntly, he sees none — than some other regents who are worse off than he is. He believes that at least one UT regent, whom he won’t publicly name, likely sought and got the appointment primarily because of his generosity to the governor's campaigns. But he says the public has a skewed view of university politics: Most regents, he says, get little out of the experience but long hours and headaches.

“Being on the board of regents was nothing but danged hard work. You don’t get paid anything … I spent at least two days a week [at it], sometimes more,” he said. “People have this image that all the UT regents do is groundbreakings and cocktail parties and football games … [but] you’re basically saying, 'I’m going to give up a whole lot of my time for the next few years for public service.'”

Yes, Rowling gave a lot of money to Perry: $257,262 in the last 10 years, records show. Yes, he knows Perry “real well,” though the donations no doubt lubricated their relationship. Later, they caused a falling out when Rowling moved his money and support over to U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who opposed Perry in the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary. (Rowling says he's since thrown his support back to Perry — and, indeed, records show he's given the governor at least $25,000 since March.) But he never viewed the donations as a way to buy a seat on the regents. Perry's people approached him to serve, he said, not the other way around. Specifically, Regents James Huffines and Scott Caven, with whom he worked closely on the board, came to him on behalf of the governor. When you get to be a regent, he said, it usually works that way.

“There’s a lot of lobbying sometimes by people who want these jobs; I know some of them who have been trying to get on the board for a long time,” Rowling said. “The ones I knew who were making a real hard play — they did not get it. I couldn’t tell that he [Perry] responded to that very much. … To his credit, he did not appoint them.

“You know what I think it is? The people who give money to politicians get to know them well. If there’s one thing [politicians] do, they learn who their donors are, and they milk them. But they develop a relationship,” Rowling said. “He appoints people he knows he can trust.”

So money can’t buy the appointment, but it can buy an introduction, which can grow into a relationship, which can lead to more campaign donations, which can lead to an appointment. And, of course, it buys power: “Somebody like me, who’s given a lot of money to Rick, has also given a lot of money to various people in the state Legislature. So I know all the state senators and legislators, and I’m very involved in the political process,” Rowling said. “UT and A&M are very dependent on the Legislature for our funding … And so I spent a ton of time over there, with senators and legislators, and I had some pull.”

And that, Rowlings figures, might have something to do with how he got on the board.

How he got off the board is another story, and one worth retelling. Rowling’s five-year tenure as a regent and, at the end, as chair of UTIMCO came to an abrupt and dramatic end one day when he simply got fed up. Rowling quit after being grilled by the Senate Finance Committee over a $1 million bonus the board of UTIMCO approved for its chief executive, Bruce Zimmerman, and $2 million in bonuses for other employees, according to the Austin-American Statesman.

News of the bonus dustup first broke in a letter a few days before — from Rowling’s good friend Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst — questioning the bonuses and calling them “irresponsible given the financial crisis spreading across our nation,” the Statesman reported.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Rowling had just two weeks earlier been named as a “KBH club chairman” — among the top supporters and donors to the Hutchison primary campaign to oust Perry from the governorship. Rowling had defected. So it’s little surprise that the gloves came off.

At the Senate hearing, Rowling never apologized. He did make clear what the senators and other state officials could do with their scorn. “You can have my job,” he said. “I resign.” 

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