Saturday, November 04, 2006

Quid Pro Toll: "It's the money interests that get to call the shots, instead of the electorate."

Donors with stake in toll roads give Perry $1.2 million


Lisa Sandberg, Julie Domel and Kelly Guckian
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2006

AUSTIN — Charles Lawrence has donated nearly a quarter of a million dollars to Gov. Rick Perry over the past six years, by far the largest amount of anyone with a vested interest in the governor's controversial Trans-Texas Corridor.

Lawrence is chairman of Kirby Corp., a Houston-based transportation company operating the nation's largest fleet of inland tank barges and towing vessels.

His donations, totaling nearly $229,000, make him the largest contributor to Perry of anyone with a strong interest in transportation in general and the Trans-Texas Corridor in particular, according to a database analysis by the San Antonio Express-News.

Perry, a Republican, received upward of $1.2 million over the past six years from individuals or political action committees that, like Lawrence, have a stake in the proposed $7 billion system of toll roads and rail lines Perry has championed. Lawrence did not return calls for comment.

That's 71/2 times the amount transportation interests gave Carole Keeton Strayhorn, an independent gubernatorial candidate, in the same time period. She came in second of the four major candidates in such donations, according to the Express-News survey.

In 2001, Strayhorn expressed support for toll roads as a way to improve transportation without raising taxes but has opposed the plan touted by Perry, saying it amounts to "the largest land grab in Texas history."

Chris Bell, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, took in $1,750 in transportation-related contributions since he announced his bid for statewide office last year and began filing campaign finance records, the newspaper found. Independent candidate Kinky Friedman received just under $68 since last year. Both Bell and Friedman have campaigned hard against the toll project.

The Express-News survey was not exhaustive, but analyzed names of participants at two Texas Department of Transportation hearings this year regarding transportation issues.

Campaign donors and recipients contacted for this story said donations to public officials had no effect, in their view, on government contracts or public policy.

"There is not a quid pro quo," said Joe Householder, a spokesman for the San Antonio-based debt collection firm Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson LLP.

That firm or individuals associated with it have given Perry at least $125,000 over the past six years, putting them fourth among Perry donors with transportation-related interests. The firm would stand to profit if the Trans-Texas Corridor was constructed and it was selected to collect delinquent tolls.

A spokesman for Perry adamantly rebutted the notion that political contributions influence the political process.

"There is no link," Robert Black said. "The governor has lots of contributors. Thousands of contributors. ... They give money because they believe in what he wants to do and where he wants to lead Texas. If they have any other motivation, they need not give."

Grass-roots anti-toll activists said the evidence is as plain as the brand-new highways being built across Texas.

"It's the money interests that get to call the shots, instead of the electorate," said Terri Hall, regional director of the San Antonio Toll Party,which boasts 5,000 members and whose leaders say there's no level playing field because members don't have the resources to contribute to politicians.

The issue of money in the political system surfaces virtually every time a big donation is made, a billion-dollar contract won or a highway paved.

Do politicians make public policy decisions without regard for the contributions they receive?

In 2005, a consortium led by Cintra of Spain and Zachry Construction Corp. of San Antonio signed a contract with TxDOT to develop a plan for a 1,200-foot-wide super-corridor linking Mexico with Oklahoma.

Texas would own and control the roads, but Cintra-Zachry would maintain them and collect tolls for 50 years.

Critics objected to the contract's secretive nature — details were released only in late September — the planned seizure of enormous tracts of land, the involvement of a foreign company and the idea of a pay-as-you-go transportation system.

Zachry family members have given Perry $141,700 since 2000. A Zachry political action committee has given an additional $5,000.

Zachry spokeswoman Vicky Waddy said the $2.4 billion company was awarded the contract because of its work, not its contributions. "We benefited because we have an 80-year history of being a quality company," Waddy said.

Black said neither Perry nor his office had anything to do with the awarding of the corridor contract. It was solely TxDOT's decision.

Andrew Wheat, research director for Texans for Public Justice, an Austin-based group that pushes for campaign finance reform, said he believes there would likely be "a fair amount of discretion involved in something this complicated." And contract award decisions would rest with Perry appointees.

Householder said if his firm's contributions swayed the bidding process, the company would have won the two-year, $1.39 million contract a competitor snagged in June to collect delinquent tolls along the Central Texas Turnpike project.

Perry's top transportation donors also happen to be among Strayhorn's biggest transportation donors. Lawrence, for instance, No. 1 transportation donor to Perry, ranked eighth among those donors to Strayhorn, giving her $5,000.

Perry's second-largest transportation contributor, Dannenbaum Engineering, was Strayhorn's top contributor, giving her $45,000 compared with Perry's $197,500. Perry's fifth-largest, Union Pacific Fund for Effective Government, was Strayhorn's second-largest.

Strayhorn spokesman Mark Sanders said contributions to Strayhorn from transportation interests have all but dried up.

"Her money is older money," Sanders said, referring to the donations made mostly before 2003.

News Researchers Kelly Guckian and Julie Domel reported from San Antonio.

© 2006 San Antonio Express-News: