More than half of Gov. Greg Abbott’s coronavirus panel on reopening Texas are campaign donors

AUSTIN -- Gov. Greg Abbott named 39 prominent Texans, most business and industry leaders, to a panel that will help guide a reopening of the state's economy after coronavirus.

At a televised news conference on Friday Abbott listed off their names, calling the choices “successful business and community leaders.”

Not mentioned: Many of them are also campaign donors. Thirty-one of the council’s 39 members have contributed to Abbott’s past runs for governor and attorney general, and since 2015, 25 have given Abbott’s gubernatorial campaign at least a combined $5.8 million, according to a Dallas Morning News analysis of campaign-finance reports.

The choices are drawing fire from government transparency advocates, union officials and Democratic leaders who fear that public health could be subordinated to profit motives as tough judgment calls are made in the coming weeks and months about easing isolation edicts.

Others question why Abbott didn’t put some everyday Texans, especially those on the front lines of medical, food and delivery services, on his Special Advisory Council.

“It’s a good idea to get a bunch of smart people in a room who know things about business and economics,” conceded Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas, which seeks to reduce the influence of money in politics.

However, Gutierrez said, “When the commission is stacked with donors and lobbyists, the concern is that public health is going to come second to either political or business interests.”

Abbott’s supporters were quick to note that the only lobbyist picked by the Republican governor was Mike Toomey, a fixture at the Texas Capitol in recent decades. A spokesman for Abbott said the governor is basing decisions on “data and doctors” and pointed out neither of two new medical advisors is a donor.

“As always Governor Abbott seeks advice from the best and brightest,” spokesman John Wittman said.

The 39-member council will advise Abbott’s Strike Force to Open Texas -- which is made up primarily of elected officials -- and could wield influence over when businesses start to reopen.

On Friday, Abbott began easing some restrictions he imposed during the coronavirus pandemic and will allow businesses to offer retail “to go.” It’s not clear what role the advisory council played in that decision.

Austin banker James R. Huffines is leading the strike force, while Toomey, a former lawmaker and chief of staff to two GOP governors, will coordinate its staff and the advisory council in a sort of virus war room.

Over the years, Toomey has given Abbott nearly $130,000 in contributions, the newspaper’s review of Texas Ethics Commission filings going back to 2001 found. And up until April 15, Toomey was registered to lobby for big-name firms ranging from AT&T and UnitedHealth Group to the Texas Hotel and Lodging Association, commission filings show.

While Abbott supporters praised his selections for the advisory council as reflecting a wide range of regions, races and industry sectors, labor leaders and progressive activists said the group doesn’t include representatives of the Texans most imperiled by the pandemic and resulting economic crash -- first responders, health care workers and service industry workers.

Texas AFL-CIO president Rick Levy condemned Abbott’s picks as elitist.

The members “named so far represent the business elite, but not the working families whose lives are at risk if a rollout runs ahead of availability of PPE, testing and tracing for all working people,” Levy said in a written statement. “Until these matters are addressed, the Strike Force (and the council) is a dream for billionaires and lobbyists, but a nightmare to anyone who works for a living."

Since 2015, 25 of the 39 members of Gov. Greg Abbott's new Special Advisory Council on post-pandemic reopening of Texas have given his campaigns at least $5.8 million. Behind Abbott as he named the group Friday was Speaker Dennis Bonnen.(Miguel Gutierrez, Texas Tribune / Pool photo)

Banks feature prominently on the advisory council, with six members representing that sector who together have contributed at least $590,000 to Abbott’s campaign.

Those representing the entertainment industry -- hit particularly hard by coronavirus closures -- include restaurateur and Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta. He has donated more than a half-million dollars to Abbott’s campaign since 2015.

Three Abbott mega donors, all billionaires, are also on the council:

Former Houston Astros owner and onetime grocery logistics magnate Drayton McLane Jr. of Temple, who has given him about $1 million;Developer H. Ross Perot Jr., who created the AllianceTexas inland port northeast of Fort Worth and has written Abbott checks worth $800,000; andDallas businessman Robert Rowling, whose holdings include Omni Hotels, Gold’s Gym and oil and gas exploration firm Tana Exploration, and who’s given Abbott $752,000.

Michael Dell, the founder and CEO of Dell Technologies who last donated to Abbott’s campaign in 2006, is also on the council. So is Nancy Kinder, a Houston philanthropist, who most recently wrote a $250,0000 check to the governor last year.

Unlimited donations

Texas imposes no limits on the size of campaign contributions. Traditionally, governors place big donors on university boards or give them other plum assignments, such as seats on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission -- on which council member Jeffery Hildebrand of Houston also serves.

“There’s always been a tight relationship between the political donor class and the politicians in this state, so it’s not surprising,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

Since 2015, when Abbott assumed his first term as governor, 25 of the council members gave Texans for Greg Abbott, his political committee, more than $5.84 million, The News found.

Of those who haven’t donated personally, one is Abbott staffer Adriana Cruz, who is executive director of the governor’s Economic Development & Tourism Division. Another is Austin jewelry magnate Kendra Scott.

There is also Marc Watts, whose boss Dan Friedkin of Houston-based Gulf States Toyota donated $250,000 and the use of an airplane within the past five years, campaign finance reports show.

Unlike seats on the University of Texas and Texas A&M University boards, which bring VIP treatment and prestige to people who usually are big political givers, a spot on the advisory council may bring unwelcome scrutiny and criticism, experts said.

Wittman, a spokesman for Abbott, said the governor prioritized experience in his picks. For the larger strike force, they included two new medical advisers, former federal Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Mark McClellan and Dell Medical School professor Parker Hudson. Including the two, who haven’t given to Abbott, gives a fuller picture, Wittman suggested.

“Moreover, the governor has included past political opponents like Kirk Watson — not because of their donation history but because of the expertise they bring to the table to help Texas overcome from COVID-19,” he said. Wittman referred to the former Democratic state senator and Austin mayor who unsuccessfully ran against Abbott for attorney general in 2002.

Dale Craymer, president of the business-backed Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, said the council has a wide range of industry representation.

“You have construction, electronics, agriculture, retail, there’s a pro sports connection there, a wholesaler, hotels,” Craymer said. “There’s a diversity of industries.”

U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro, D-San Antonio, denounced Abbott for naming political donors to his task force, saying it was "keeping with a pattern of corruption" in state government where political donors used their influence to benefit from public funds. The state is handling federal dollars meant to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When you appoint an advisory committee to deal with a pandemic you need to appoint competent experts and those most affected by the situation and instead the governor seems to be appointing lobbyists and big contributors,” Castro said.

Austin correspondent James Barragán contributed to this report.


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