BY CODY LYON
Those who follow Texas politics might call Houston homebuilder Bob Perry a modern day kingmaker. Although Perry avoids the usual pomp, circumstance and other high profile antics associated with kingmakers past and present, the man who runs Perry Homes commands formidable political influence in Lone Star State politics.
On one hand a generous philanthropist, the other, a shrewd highly successful businessman, running a privately held company that reported revenues of around $420 million in 2003. For years, Perry has turned part of that wealth into political influence through hefty campaign contributions at the state level.
Perrys role as a major political player has been acknowledged, discussed and debated by the watchdogs of Texas state politics for years. But, in 2004 a $4.4 million dollar donation to an unregulated, tax exempt, political group known as a 527, caught the eyes of American voters beyond Texas.
Perry wrote and signed the check for one of the most controversial moments in the 2004 Presidential campaign. A highly contentious, controversial yet memorable television ad questioning Democratic Presidential candidate and Vietnam Veteran John Kerry's accounts of combat in Southeast Asia introduced most Americans to Bob Perry.
A number of critics saw the ad as just one more reason for more regulation of the 527s that engaged primarily in negative attacks on candidates ethics, morals and character.
But Perrys direct role in the Swift Boat Vets and POWs for Truth thrust the man, his efforts and motives for politicking in front of a national political spotlight, a spotlight that has led to greater scrutiny, criticism and a number of questions about his intentions.
Perrys money has shown up in the current election cycle through even heftier donations to 527 groups and candidates across the nation. Evidence of his influence has shown up in states like Idaho, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.
There are a number of observers who think Bob Perry hopes to influence voters away from politicians that dont share his conservative and strict pro business values, perfectly legal behavior under current campaign finance laws.
Back in Texas, Perrys record in influencing elections goes back years. More recently, his efforts appear to have paid off with policies that directly impact his business interests. And, suggestive evidence shows that Perry may be hoping to export some of that Texas style influence to political contests across the nation for similar reasons.
Andrew Wheat is Research Director for the Austin Think Tank and watchdog organization, Texans for Public Justice. He says Bob Perry and President Bush come out of the Texas Political system, a political culture devoid of donation limits, and large donations often appear to be rewarded with influence during the policy making process.
Year after year, Bob Perry is Texass single largest political donor said Wheat.
According to the Federal Elections Commission, Bob Perry has earned the title of largest political donor in the United States for the current election cycle.
Perry has spent around $9 million during this cycle alone, to fund 527 electioneering communication groups responsible for a number of attack ads on Democratic Party candidates. 527s with names like Economic Freedom Fund, Americans for Honesty in Issues have all been bankrolled by Perry money.
In addition to media ads, thousands of homes in some states, received phone calls, and a recorded voice claimed survey, but in truth, the calls were what is called a "push poll" ,robocalls that according to analysts, attempt to plant seeds of doubt about a particular candidate , thousands were made, all paid for by Perry under the guise of a 527 group called Freeeats.com.
Perry also funded The Free Enterprise Fund, a PAC seeking to counter the liberal messages of the well-financed and influential MoveOn.org.
Bob Perry's support for President Bushs conservative agenda goes without question, which in part explains his efforts during the last Presidential election. Current campaign finance rules allow such participation.
But, Perrys specific motivation in the current crop of political contests in the Congressional and Senate elections are not entirely clear.
Ultimately, his desire to impact policy related to the Pocketbook may offer one nugget of insight into the Developer's motives.
In Texas, Bob Perry has been a strong supporter of tort reform and legislation that is friendly to the homebuilder industry. And in that state, Perry's campaign donations coupled with aggressive industry lobbying efforts has resulted in Texas tort reform legislation and other changes favorable to the homebuilder industry.
It is no secret that a number of business groups, including the homebuilder industry would like to see similar reforms, especially judicial, on a national scale. Some fiscal conservatives and business interests argue that civil courts are biased, tending to rule in favor of the consumer. They attribute this, in large part, to the fact that jury members can easily identify and sympathize with fellow consumers. Supporters of tort reforms point to frivolous lawsuits and high profile outrageous financial awards that over the years have cost business interests millions of dollars.
In Texas, Bob Perry's political money and subsequent influence played a key role in reining what many of the tort reform advocates say was an out of control civil court system in that state.
But critics of the Texas overhauls say those changes have led to results that include a court system less friendly, even hostile, to consumer concerns. In particular some point to a chilling of legal recourse options for homebuyers seeking reparation for allegedly shoddy workmanship in new home purchases.
Could a push for candidates friendly to national tort reform be a motive in Perry's pumping of generous streams of cash into campaigns in places like Iowa, Colorado, Indiana and Tennessee among others.
Tennessees Democratic Party Chairman says he thinks that Bob Perrys funding of an especially negative ad attacking Democrat Harold Fords Armani suits and expensive cigars is really simple, that its a shared Republican desire for power and protections of their interests.
They (Republicans) need to control Congress to prevent investigations into Republican wrongdoing said Bob Tuke, the states Democratic Party Chair.
In an apparent jab at Democratic Senate Candidate Harold Ford's opponent, Tuke called Republican Bob Corker "just one of theirs."
Coincidentally, Chattanooga's Bob Corker, like Bob Perry, made a great deal of his fortune in the building and real estate industry. And, many of the Tennessee Republican candidate's biggest supporters are members of the real estate and building industry.
The homebuilder industry has expressed enthusiastic support for national judicial reforms. The National Association of Homebuilders said in a 2004 press release that reforming the civil justice system has become, and will continue to be a priority for its interests.
That release went on to argue that trial lawyers, under the guise of consumer advocacy, are subjecting homebuilders to costly and unfair litigation fees.
In Texas, Bob Perrys company has been no stranger to lawsuits.
According to a 2003 "Dallas Morning News" article, Perry's company has been sued 20 times since 1985. But it was a lawsuit called the Brio case that garnered the most attention. 1700 plaintiffs brought suit against Perry, other developers and a chemical company for their roles in the construction of a massive housing development in suburban Houston. The homes had been built over a toxic waste dump. The plaintiffs eventually settled for $200 million.
Still, some tort reform advocates see the Brio case as another example of what they call an epidemic of frivolous and unfair lawsuits.
Indeed, The American Tort Reform Association says according to its research, the American Judicial system is the most expensive in the industrialized world, costing $246 billion annually.
Often homebuyers sue homebuilders or developers over lemon conditions, shoddy construction or allegations of unfulfilled contract obligations. Tort reform advocates argue those disputes can be settled outside of court, and that in the end, large cash rewards to plaintiffs get passed onto consumers, including future home-buyers.
But on the other side, reform critics argue that "limiting" consumer's access to courtroom conducted legal procedures not only takes away an important safety net, in the end, such reforms could lead to a chilling of lawsuits that have exposed business and corporate misconduct, which also trickles down to consumer pockebooks.
Regardless, Bob Perry has had tort reform high on his agenda since the Brio case was resolved in 1992.
Any speculation over Bob Perry's behind the scenes national politicking requires a closer glance at his actions in Texas, and the potential role he and the powerful industry hes a part of could play in the creation of policy on a national scale.
Janet Ahmed recalls a day in 2003 when she and other homeowner activists were at the Texas legislature in Austin promoting a Home- Lemon Law-bill that would offer protections to homebuyers in that state in a similar fashion that lemon car laws protect new car buyers. On this particular trip to the capital, Ahmed, the President of The Homeowners for Better Building organization says she couldnt help but notice the large number of women, mostly elderly, that were dutifully shuffling about the State House. When quizzed by Ahmed, a few of the women said they were in town to talk to legislators about all those "awful frivolous lawsuits in Texas that were costing consumers so much money. According to Ahmed, the army of elderly women lobbyist were under the impression that everyday consumer pocketbooks were being impacted by a rash of frivolous lawsuits in throughout the State.
But, Ahmed says she thinks the busloads of elderly lobbyist were in fact brought in, fed breakfast as well as slanted information, educated, by Pro court reform coaches connected to the Texas homebuilder industry about the so-called frivolous lawsuits, in what Ahmed believes was a clear case of smoke and mirrors politics meant to promote tort reform specifically favorable to home builders and developers.
Ahmed says the Austin tort reform blitz was organized by the group Texas For Lawsuit Reform (TLR), run by Richard Weekly. Richard Weekly is the brother of another Texas homebuilder/developer, David Weekly. Ahmed and others have also said that the Texas Tort reform efforts were bankrolled by Developer Perry and Weekly's generous financial support for homebuilder friendly legislative, gubernatorial and judicial candidates.
In fact, from 1997 through 2002, The Weekly family, the Perry Family and the TLR organization gave over $5 million to various state races, including judicial races across Texas.
Back before George W. Bush was elected Governor of Texas, the state's homebuilder lobby had won passage of the Residential Construction Liability Act. The RCLA gave builders the right to repair a construction defect, before the consumer could take the homebuilder to court.
According some homeowner advocates like Janet Ahmed, the right to repair act quickly became the right to delay leaving homebuyers at the mercy of the homebuilders.
By the time Bob Perry campaign contribution benefactor Governor Rick Perry assumed his office, Legislation was passed placing limits on the amount of money that could be awarded to a homebuyer in a legal dispute, regardless of a builder's determined level of negligence. Later legislation went further, making it more difficult for homebuyers to prove damage or structural flaws may have been caused during the original construction process.
A 2004 "Los Angeles Times" article reported that it was also during that period, builders were starting to add arbitration clauses to their contracts forcing un happy homeowners to take complaints before private arbitrators, rather than a judge and jury. The "Times" noted that in 2003, the state legislature formed a new nine member "Residential Construction Commission" made up of inspectors, affiliated with or members of the homebuilder industry.
Much of the RCC legislation language was crafted by John Krugh. John Krugh is the lawyer for (Bob) Perry Homes. Krugh was later appointed by Governor Perry to serve on the RCC panel.
In Texas, Binding Arbitration clauses drove unhappy homebuyers out of the public courts and into an Arbitration system that homebuyer advocates say is lengthy, less regulated since disputes are no longer open for public scrutiny.
Everybody has to go to binding arbitration, even if your roof is leaking or your wall cracking, and sometimes it takes months to resolve noted Janet Ahmed who went on to say if the situation is unlivable, and the homebuyer decides to fix the problem themselves, they then forfeit their warranty and future repairs become the sole responsibility of the homeowner.
At Ahmeds organizations web site HOBB.ORG, countless horror stories offer details of American Dreams turned nightmare, stories where new homeowners discover defects like toxic mold or shoddy structural construction, tangible threats to what most Americans agree is their most important material investment, a house. HOBB also highlights frustration over new roadblocks in the Texas legal system.
Andrew Wheat has written that groups like Public Citizen, Consumers Union and Homeowners Against Deficient Dwellings who've dealt with arbitration say it amounts to a Kangaroo court.
It was Wheat and members of his watchdog organization, Texans for Public Justice who dug and found information suggesting that former House Leader Tom Delays Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee might have been engaged in improper and illegal misuse of corporate campaign money. Wheat's tireless efforts, sparked events that led to Delays eventual indictment on conspiracy and money laundering charges and a snowball of charges that led to his eventual ouster from Congress.
The largest donor to Tom Delay's PAC "Texans for A Republican Majority was developer Bob Perry.
Wheat, deciphers Perry's Texas political motives with ease, noting his organization has followed Bob Perrys long money trails for years.
In Texas Hes motivated by a push to limit damages from homeowner lawsuits
Perry's tremendous campaign contributions in Texas helped lead to legislation friendly to the homebuilder industry in that state. Some wonder if Perry and the homebuilder industry harbor similar aspirations for other states as well.
Observers of political players like Perry worry that voters aren't paying attention to powerful money interests and how cash given to politicians can turn into influence and tangible policy that affects people's lives.
For example, during a recent interview with West Virginia Public Radio, Jake Bernstein, Editor of The Texas Observer, said people dont pay enough attention to whos paying for campaigns.
He noted that in the world of Texas Politics, there has not been the sort of open debate over campaign finance reform that there should have been, because so many members of the Texas Republican controlled legislature, the Governor and others including judges have all greatly benefited from money like Bob Perry's.
Theories still swirl beyond Texas over Perry's potential intentions to impact policy in the current political cycle?
Janet Ahmed at HOBB subscribes to the theory of Bob Perry wanting to share his Texas successes and influence with the rest of the country. Ahmed says campaign contributions provided Bob Perry and his allies influence over the leaders who quickly passed legislation she argues is now responsible for regulating the home buying public and not the home builder industry. She and other homeowner advocates point to a powerful lobby that hinders homebuyers from seeking legitimate reparations. Ahmed warns that what happened in Texas is coming to the rest of the country, especially if voters don't pay attention to the motives of behind the scenes political players like Bob Perry.
If the wealthy Texas based homebuilders are able to limit liability in Texas then they are also going to try and influence the political arena in other states to do the same thing she said.
Still, most observers outside Texas are still cautious about drawing specific conclusions on Perry's national motive pointing out his strong ideologically conservative allegiance. Like millions of other Americans, Bob Perry's support for Republican candidates could be based in the same principals that anyone else who calls them selves Republican does.
But, Perry's dalliances in other state's election through his bankrolling of the controversial 527 organizations and subsequent commercials have warranted greater scrutiny.
Perhaps more importantly, scrutiny of Bob Perry has also raised deeper questions about the way political campaigns are financed in the United States and whether the shadowy unregulated nature of 527s.
One thing is pretty much certain, without greater campaign finance reform that plugs up loopholes, money will continue to flow in to states from sources that is in many cases, not easily traced to source or motive. And, there is always the assumption held by much of the electorate, that huge political donations corrupt the integrity of the system and allow well monied interests to buy political access and ultimately, influence over policy. In fact, some say the current rules encourage antics like Perry's.
Of Perry, one observer in Tennessee noted, there are clear political associations one can assume, and voters can draw their own conclusions.
Of Bob Perry's financing attack ads against Democrat Harrold Ford in Al Gore's home state, the widely known conservative Knoxville columnist Frank Cagle mused in an email note that "a Texas developer probably knows Karl Rove.