Tracking the stealthy wealthy: How (and why) big donors give big

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One of the questions we frequently hear in this brave new world of super PACs and the seven-figure donations made to these independent organizations is, simply, why is this a problem? Thanks to super PACs, after all, candidates like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich can say in the race far longer than they could have in the past, giving voters a wider choice. A Mitt Romney, meanwhile, has super PAC supporters who can attack them both. Super PACs are contributing to political speech, the thinking goes, to a robust democratic process where primary voters who go to the polls in March, April–perhaps as late as June–will have a say in who their party’s nominee is.

The problem, simply put, is that the donors to these organizations are not disinterested promoters of politics, but rather, individuals with numerous issues before local, state and federal governments, and the means to influence those who will be in charge of resolving those issues. Political giving is how they accomplish their ends.

A lobbyist for Waste Control Specialists, a company owned by mega-donor Harold C. Simmons, explained to an Albuquerque Journal reporter in 1999 why the Texas billionaire had given to New Mexico politicians: “We didn’t want to be strangers when we showed up with a request,” he said.

The request involved state tax breaks and incentives to lure a nuclear enrichment facility to the southeast corner of New Mexico–one move in a 17-year long struggle Simmons and a company he controls undertook to win approval for a low level radioactive waste dump in Andrews, Texas, just across the border from the site of the proposed uranium plant. The latter effort is still ongoing but has ultimately been successful–after the Simmons combine contributed more than $1.13 million to Texas legislative races, $1.68 million to gubernatorial candidates and $264,500 to Texas political parties.

Overall, Simmons, his wife, two of his daughters and the companies he controls have contributed at least $34.8 million to parties, political action committees, politicians and other political organizations, including super PACs like American Crossroads and 527s like Swift Boat Vets & POWs for Truth.

To arrive at that number, we started with data from InfluenceExplorer.com, which has federal campaign data from the Center for Responsive Politics and state level contributions for the National Institute on Money in State Politics. We added 527 contributions reported to the Internal Revenue Service (you can look them up here or download them in bulk from the Center for Responsive Politics), records of contributions to Texas political action committees from the Texas Ethics Commission, and searches of other state databases of PAC contributions where Simmons had contributed to state level candidates, including California and Virginia.

We searched for giving by Simmons, his wife, two of his adult daughters who’ve listed his companies or family foundation as their employers and direct contributions from his companies, which include Contran, Valhi, NL Industries, Titanium Metals, Southwest Louisiana Land and Waste Control Specialists. We included relevant giving by Amalgamated Sugar during the years in which Simmons owned that firm. We also looked at lobbying records–federal ones in InfluenceExplorer.com, and state records from the Texas Ethics Commission. We also looked for contributions by the employees and PACs of those companies, but totaled that figure separately: they gave about $2.8 million. The earliest federal contributions are from 1989 and run through 2011; ┬áthe earliest state level contributions are from 1993.

Simmons’s activities have generated a great deal of attention in Texas, especially his efforts with Waste Control Specialists to secure permits to dump massive amounts of low level radioactive waste there. Media accounts were incredibly helpful, and there has been great reporting on the issue in the Lone Star State from the Dallas Morning News, the Austin-American Statesman, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Houston Chronicle, the Texas Observer and the Texas Tribune. A lot of these accounts are available online, but many–especially the older stories–were accessed through Lexis-Nexis.

Because radioactive waste disposal is a highly regulated endeavor, there is a great deal of public information about Waste Control Specialists’ activities in Texas, ranging from license applications to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to a website the company itself launched as part of its public relations effort. But most government decisions are not made with so much public input and disclosure of documents. While Simmons has left a long paper trail, both of publicly reported campaign contributions and public filings with regulatory agents, many big donors find alternate routes to influence the legislative process without leaving nearly so public a footprint. Tracing their activities, in an era of organizations that influence politics without disclosing donors, is the real challenge, and something that we’ll look at in future stealthy wealthy posts.

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