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Perry's Finance Chairman Does Super PAC Two-Step

Dallas billionaire Kelcy Warren, Rick Perry's presidential campaign finance chairman, hasn't contributed directly to the former governor's campaign. But he has plowed $6 million into a coalition of super PACs supporting Perry’s bid.

By Carrie Levine, Center for Public Integrity
Former Gov. Rick Perry speaks to an audience of veterans and supporters at a fundraiser for the Puppy Jake Foundation in Iowa, on June 6, 2015.

By conventional standards, Kelcy Warren's performance as Rick Perry's presidential campaign finance chairman is disappointing.

Perry’s campaign raised $1.14 million between the former Texas governor’s June 4 announcement and the end of June — about one-tenth of what fellow Republican Jeb Bush reported raising in about half that time.

Federal records show Warren hasn’t even donated to Perry’s campaign.  

But Warren is helping Perry in another, major way — and galloping through a legal minefield to do it.

The Dallas billionaire ploughed $6 million into a coalition of super PACs — such groups may raise unlimited amounts of money — that are supporting Perry’s bid.

Warren’s contribution illustrates how closely some presidential campaigns and advisers are working with the theoretically “independent” groups that exist to promote their candidate of choice.

Consider that on Wednesday, the pro-Perry Opportunity and Freedom PAC super PAC is holding a forum at a Washington, D.C. hotel to discuss “the role of conservatives in leading America to a new era of prosperity.”

The roundtable discussion will be followed by remarks from a special guest — none other than Perry, the candidate it’s backing.

While candidates and their campaigns are not permitted to coordinate directly with super PACs, the legal meaning of “coordination” is both ill-defined and technical.

Presidential candidates are exploiting squishy coordination regulations to capitalize on supportive groups with unlimited fundraising potential. For example, Bush, along with other presidential candidates including Hillary Clinton, Carly Fiorina and Scott Walker, have this year joined Perry in forging intimate relationships with super PACs supporting their political ambitions.

The situation leaves room, in other words, for wealthy political benefactors like Warren to play significant roles in the operations of presidential campaigns and super PACs alike.  

Brett Kappel, a campaign finance lawyer at law firm Akerman LLP, who has advised many campaigns, said Warren’s activities look “problematic,” if short of illegal.

“If they use extreme caution, it is possible for someone involved in the campaign to make a contribution to the associated super PAC. They just can’t discuss … plans, programs, activities and needs,” Kappel said.

“Even though he has a title with the campaign, if the campaign keeps him out of strategic planning and other decision making with regards to spending money, I think they’re going to be OK,” said Kenneth Gross, head of the political law practice at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP.

Warren declined to be interviewed, and Jeff Miller, Perry’s campaign manager, requested a reporter email him and then did not respond.

But Austin Barbour, senior adviser to the three related pro-Perry super PACs at the receiving end of Warren’s contributions, said he understands the federal rules restricting coordination between candidate committees and super PACs.

Barbour has taken steps, he said, to ensure no one crosses into verboten territory.

“I am not going to put … myself, him or the campaign in a position like that,” said Barbour, an experienced political fundraiser who raised money for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney during the 2012 election cycle. “Absolutely not.”

Barbour said the super PAC specifically warned Warren about the coordination rules, to make sure he understood he couldn’t discuss strategy with the campaign.

Warren was not deeply immersed in strategic decisions for either the campaign or the super PAC, Barbour added.

Barbour, however, has previously said he and Perry’s allies created multiple super PACs in the first place because high-dollar donors want to have more of a voice in the individual groups’ activities.

“Every donor is going to have specific ideas about how they want us to operate but none of them are going to get into the minutiae,” Barbour said, adding that he and Warren have “probably talked two or three times ” this year.

Warren, Barbour told the Center for Public Integrity, made his super PAC contributions in three payments.

Two payments arrived in $700,000 and $300,000 increments to the Opportunity and Freedom PAC — the dates of which he could not immediately recall — and a subsequent $5 million contribution to offshoot Opportunity and Freedom PAC I arrived in late June. The latter contribution would have come after Perry, who unsuccessfully ran for president in 2012, announced his 2016 bid.

The three super PACs supporting Perry, which are related to each other and named variations on Opportunity and Freedom PAC, reportedly raised a combined $16.8 million — official filings are due to federal regulators by July 31.

More than a third of the super PAC money raised came from Warren, who’s also connected to Perry in another realm: business.

When Perry left the Texas governor’s mansion in January, he joined the board of Energy Transfer Partners, the company Warren leads as chairman and chief executive.

Another $5 million came from Dallas billionaire Darwin Deason and $4 million from a donor who has not been identified. 

Opportunity and Freedom PAC doesn’t hide its Perry connections. Its co-chairmen, Ray Sullivan and Mike Toomey, are former Perry chiefs of staff.

This story is from The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.

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Politics 2016 elections Rick Perry