Stealthy Wealthy: To Robert Rowling, political giving makes business sense


Robert RowlingTexas-based billionaire Robert Rowling has given a total of $6.8 million to American Crossroads, the super PAC that has run ads criticizing President Barack Obama for, among other things, bailing out and bankrolling private businesses with public money. Yet Rowling, seen at right, a member of the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans who inherited his fortune, hasn't been averse to seeking taxpayer assistance in his own business ventures. And he's been willing to use his private fortune to seek public dollars. 

Though he's a less well-known name than mega donors like George Soros or the Koch Brothers, Rowling has been contributing for years. An analysis of his political giving shows that the surge of contributions in the super PAC era was preceeded by a steady flow of donations that stretches back decades. While he has written the biggest checks for the super PAC, he has also been quick to write smaller dollar checks for city council and mayoral candidates–and even the occasional Democrat.

From his perch as the head of the privately held TRT Holdings, Rowling oversees an empire that includes Omni Hotels & ResortsTana Exploration CompanyGold’s Gym; he also owns a major stake in Gaylord Entertainment, home of the Grand Ole Opry. None of these entities leave much of an official lobbying footprint. But digging into Rowling's past shows that his giving is part of his business strategy.

"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 in a frank interview he gave the Texas Tribune in 2010. Through an assistant, Rowling declined to speak to Sunlight for this story.

A search of federal and state campaign contributions available online from Influence Explorer, the Center for Responsive Politics, and the City of Dallas that shows Rowling, his wife, and TRT Holdings having given at least $11.4 million since 1989, when some electronic records first became available. This amount is likely an understament. Much local campaign contribution giving is not available online in electronic format. And Rowling may well be contributing to nonprofit groups that are politically active, such as American Crossroad's sister organization, Crossroads GPS, which are not required to reveal their donors.

Rowling has opened more than his checkbook for political causes, he's also opened his Texas home to fundraising efforts like this one, a party to benefit the National Republican Senatorial Committee. In addition to his political giving, Rowling is a trustee of a family foundation, the Rowling Foundation, which has distributed $17.9 million to various charities since 2004, according to a search of tax documents, many conservative Christian in mission, such as Dallas' Downtown Pregnancy Center, which counsels women against abortion. The foundation has also supported local universities including the University of Texas and Southern Methodist University. 

But his giving isn't limited to religious and philanthropic causes, and often has a connection to his business interests. In February 2009, the Dallas City Council chose Rowling's Omni Hotels over Marriott as the operator of a proposed city-owned convention hotel. But the deal found opposition in Dallas real estate magnate Harlan Crow, another big Republican donor who spent nearly $5 million to fund an issue committee, Citizens Against the Taxpayer-Owned Hotel, that campaigned for Proposition 1, a ballot measure that would have forbidden the city of Dallas to own such a venue. 

In response, proponents of the convention center hotel formed Vote No Dallas! and Enough is Enough to oppose Proposition 1. On April 23, Rowling contributed $25,000 to Vote No Dallas! Just two days before the election on May 9, TRT Holdings sent a $35,000 contribution to Enough is Enough, followed by another $15,000 in June, after the election had already taken place. The group ran ads like this one, that said the convention center would bring thousands of jobs to Dallas and said it would not be paid for with tax dollars. Rowling contributed $75,000 to oppose Proposition 1–a drop in the bucket compared to Crow's millions.

While the anti-proposition 1 groups did not raise nearly as much money as Crow's group, their lists of donors included a number of prominent Texas conservatives.  Sam and the late Charles Wyly are known in political circles for their support of the "Swift boat" campaign against 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry and for launching an attack against Sen. John McCain when he battled George W. Bush for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination. Each gave $5,000 to Enough is Enough. Contran Corp., owned by Harold Simmons, gave $50,000; oilman Ray L. Hunt and his company, Hunt Oil, pitched in a total of more than $110,000 the groups. Ross Perot's Hillwood Development Corp. kicked in a total of $100,000. Roger and Marianne Staubach gave a total of $11,000, and Dallas Cowboy owner Jerry Jones contributed $25,000 through a family partnership.

In the end, they prevailed. Voters rejected Proposition 1, 51 to 49 percent. The following month, the Dallas City Council approved a bond sale of $514 million to finance the deal. In November 2011, Dallas Mayor Michael Rawlings attended a ceremonial ribbon cutting for the opening of the city-owned, Omni-operated hotel. Rowling had given the Democrat $10,000 for his campaign. The hotel was open for business. 

Earlier this year, the Dallas City Council unanimously voted to award TRT Holdings $2.3 million in tax abatements over ten years and a $200,000 economic development grant to entice Rowling to move the headquarters of the company from Irving to Dallas. A TRT Holdings press release dated January 25, the day of the vote, quoted Democratic Dallas Mayor Michael Rawlings as saying, "This move to Dallas is significant because it speaks volumes about the economic vitality of our city and its appeal as a premier location for business headquarters." Another recipient of Rowling's campaign contributions, Council member Ann Margolin, was reported as saying the agreement–which forgave 90 percent of the firm's local tax obligation–was a "very good deal for the city," while at the same time questioning whether the future tax abatements for businesses should be as generous. Rowling gave Margolin $500 for her 2009 campaign.

As for TRT's new office space, the owner of the headquarters is none other than Harlan Crow.  

From Texas to Tennessee

Rowling's various business interests keep a low profile at the federal level. Omni Hotels & Resorts, some 50 hotels that offer everything from "exceptional golf and spa retreats to dynamic business settings," according to the chain's website, is not registered to lobby in Washington. But the group is a member of the American Hotel & Lodging Association, which reported spending $1.2 million on lobbying last year on issues ranging from the health care reform law to labor related issues to a public database run by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Joy Rothschild, who directs human resources for Omni Hotels, served recently as chairperson of the trade association's labor committee. 

Omni Hotels is not Rowling's only venture into the hospitality and travel industry. Until recently he was the largest shareholder in Gaylord Entertainment, a Nashville institution whose properties include the fabled Grand Ole Opry. In June, the company filed paperwork with the Securities and Exchange Commission to convert to a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT), with four of its hotels to be managed by Marriott, a deal which has gotten antitrust clearance from federal regulators.  Rowling, who has had a contentious relationship with the Gaylord's management, in late July issued an open letter to shareholders, in which TRT Holdings outlined opposition to the deal. In early August, Gaylord bought back a substantial portion of TRT Holdings' shares in the company and reportedly had plans to buy the remainder.

Rowling already has a foothold in Nashville: in June 2011, with the blessings of Mayor Karl Dean, a Democrat, and the local Metro Council, Omni broke ground on a new convention hotel which contains the Country Music Hall of Fame. That same month Rowling sent a $1,000 check to Dean's campaign fund, according to analysis of campaign contributions by the International Union of Operating Engineers, a division of the AFL-CIO, which has been critical of the development. The Nashville government does not make campaign contributions available online; however, the union obtained the data and keyed it into a database.

Rowling also owns Gold's Gym, a network of health clubs in 37 states. In 2010, news of his contributions to the conservative Super PAC American Crossroads caused an uproar in San Francisco area gyms that cater to the gay public. At the time, local franchise managers threatened to leave the network. In October, the company also issued a statement,  stating that the Crossroads contributions from Rowling were "private" and had nothing to do with Gold's Gym, which is "proud to have a large and dedicated base of LGBT members in our gyms." 

Among Rowling's other holdings are Tana Exploration. Tana Oil and Exploration was originally co-founded by his father, Reese, in the late 1960s and was the source of the family's original fortune. In 1989, Texaco purchased Tana's production company for $476.5 million, and ten years later, Unocal bought another chunk of the company. The remaining company specializes in developing oil and gas reserves in the Gulf of Mexico, partnering with other companies, partnerships and entities to do so. 

Player and pragmatist

According to Rowling himself, his record of political giving has proven useful. In 2004,  Gov. Rick Perry–who had collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Rowling–appointed him to serve as a regent for the University of Texas. He also served as vice chairman of the board of the University of Texas Investment Management Company. Years later, in an interview he gave to the Texas Tribune, which had had published an analysis of the university's regents and their political giving, he denied the contributions were the reason he was appointed, saying the situation was more complex than that.

Nevertheless, he said the donations gave him clout: "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….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."

Rowling later switched his allegiance and decided to support Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison when she launched a challenge to Perry. Not long after, in early 2009, Perry sent Rowling a letter criticizing him for approving multi-million dollar bonuses for the university's fund managers at a time that the investments were tanking. The next day, at a Senate hearing, where he was being grilled about the bonuses by angry lawmakers, he resigned.

Hutchison charged that the flap was politically motivated. But if there were hard feelings, it doesn't show in Rowling's campaign contributions. After Hutchison lost the primary, Rowling went back to contributing to Perry–all told, he's given more than $371,000 to the governor and one-time presidential candidate. He also contributed to Romney. Like many large campaign donors, Rowling has a strong pragmatic streak.

(Kathryn Lucero contributed to this story.)

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(Photo credit: University of Texas)