Saturday, July 28, 2007

Political donations fund Perry's international trips. Taxpayers pay for his security detail.

Critics see excess in Gov. Perry's foreign travel

Aides defend frequent trips in name of trade

July 28, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN – Gov. Rick Perry has crossed the deserts bare, man; breathed the mountain air, man; he's been everywhere – visiting at least 11 foreign countries in the past three years as an emissary for Texas.

Thus far this year, he has spent 18 days in five countries – Qatar, Israel, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Jordan. The plane fare for him and an aide to Istanbul cost $13,586, a tab picked up by political donors. But taxpayers pay the bills for his Department of Public Safety security detail, which always travels with him. DPS declined to say what that costs, citing security concerns.

Mr. Perry's aides argue that with so many foreign companies doing business in Texas, the governor needs to promote the state for it to stay competitive in a global economy. But his penchant for international travel is unique among Texas governors, and Democrats have criticized the practice as special interest-financed vacations.

And whether on a trade mission or policy retreat or delivering speeches in foreign lands, Mr. Perry has traveled well, generally staying in five-star hotels, flying in private jets or being pampered in business class seats.

For instance, for a 2004 trip to the Bahamas to discuss public education funding with staff, supporters and conservative thinkers such as anti-tax guru Grover Norquist, three of Mr. Perry's political supporters donated the $40,400 in travel costs.

Mr. Perry's 12 international visits have included two to Mexico. A trip to Iraq and Afghanistan was financed largely through the Department of Defense. The rest have been paid for with political contributions and the Texas Economic Development Corp. – a nonprofit organization spearheaded by the governor that solicits and uses corporate donations to promote business in Texas.

International travel is new for Texas governors – Ann Richards went to Mexico for a presidential inauguration, as did George W. Bush. Late in his state term, Mr. Bush traveled to Israel and met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but many saw it as a political gambit to improve the governor's foreign relations résumé before his first presidential campaign. Last month, in his trip to Israel, Mr. Perry met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

When the opportunities arose for Ms. Richards to take official trips out of the country, she turned them down, said former press secretary Bill Cryer.

"It came up once or twice for her to go to one or two exotic places, but she decided to turn it down as too politically unsavory and she knew that people would criticize her for it," Mr. Cryer said.

Former LBJ School of Public Affairs dean Max Sherman, who also served as a state senator and gubernatorial adviser, said international travel could be a pitfall for many politicians.

"My guess is that it is a new day, and you'll probably see governors and mayors doing more things from an international perspective, mainly because of business," he said.

"But politically, many people will not look favorably on it," he added. "They probably feel that there are enough problems here in the state that need to be dealt with, and the governor needs to be here."

Mr. Sherman also said it is often difficult to connect an international trip to real results in-state. And many voters will see it as a steppingstone to either another political office or a lucrative job afterward. Mr. Perry, who has not ruled out running for another term for governor in 2010, has been mentioned as a possible Republican vice presidential candidate or Cabinet secretary or ambassador in a GOP administration.

"Maybe it would lay a foundation for something on a national or global scale, either publicly or privately," Mr. Sherman said. "Showing you've been to hot spots around the world that are going to be major players with the U.S. and Texas would enhance the résumé."

Krista Moody, a spokeswoman for Mr. Perry, said the trips have brought real results for Texas. She pointed to the Toyota plant in San Antonio, a Samsung plant in Austin and the Nokia Corp. headquarters in Irving that are creating high-paying jobs.

"Governor Perry has been unabashedly pursuing economic opportunities throughout the state, throughout the country and over oceans," Ms. Moody said.

"By personally going, he puts a shine on deals by showing that the state's leaders would make a trip to meet with business leaders in different countries to personally make the case for why Texas is one of the best places in the world for them to do business," she said.

Mr. Perry has not been to South Korea, headquarters for Samsung, nor Finland, home to Nokia. He had planned an August 2005 trade trip to Japan, where Toyota is based, but he had to cancel because of a special session on school finance that he called. He instead sent his wife, Anita.

Mr. Perry has touted a weeklong trip to Italy in March 2004 to bring jobs to Texas by meeting with officials from Alenia Aeronautica, which is Vought Aircraft Industries' partner in the development of a new Boeing jet. He also met with oil and gas executives on the trip.

On the Italy trip, the Perrys stayed at the Grand Hotel Parco Dei Principi in Rome and at the Westin Excelsior in Florence, where currently, rooms cost no less than about $500 a night.

Ms. Moody said the governor has been conscientious and saved taxpayers "a tremendous amount of money" by paying for the trips either with political donations from his campaign account or through the Texas Economic Development Corp. A check of other states showed that Mr. Perry has set an aggressive pace for foreign travel. For instance, former New York Gov. George Pataki, over his 12 years in office, went to about 15 countries. And Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who has been in office five years, made his first trade mission last month, visiting Spain and England.

In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has recently been taking heat for allowing a similar foundation to pay for his international forays.

"Our guy gets criticized," said Schwarzenegger press secretary Aaron McLear.

Over the past three years, Mr. Schwarzenegger has been on 14 international trips – including four to Mexico and one in July 2004 to his home country of Austria, when he was part of the official U.S. delegation to attend the funeral of the Austrian president.

Mr. McLear said the California governor pays for most of his travel out of his personal bank account, while the rest comes from the California State Protocol Foundation, which is closely associated with the California Chamber of Commerce. Mr. Schwarzenegger has donated $8 million of his own money to the foundation.

And one country among the 14 that the former movie star has visited was not on Mr. Schwarzenegger's original itinerary. The governor was in Israel and the king of Jordan, having arranged transportation, asked him to pay a quick visit.

Said Mr. McLear: "His celebrity certainly helps him sell California."

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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