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When it comes to presidential candidates, Texas Gov. Rick Perry is a man of modest means.
Perry’s state salary peaked at $150,000 after two decades as a public official, and he and his wife earned just over $2 million in wages between 1991 and 2009.
Perry is worth is at least $1.1 million. His chief Republican rival, businessman Mitt Romney, is worth more than $190 million.
Perry became a millionaire through a practice common to many other politicians over the years: taking part in profitable deals involving political friends and their businesses. He made more than $800,000 in 2007 reselling a resort development plot he had gotten from a Republican friend in the Legislature, and he cleared a quick $38,000 in 1995 by flipping stock in a company owned by one of his top campaign donors.
Private deals involving campaign supporters are widely criticized by government reformers as a potential form of backdoor donations or influence-buying. But they are often legal; in Perry’s case, the Securities and Exchange Commission did not act on a complaint about his stock windfall.
“It’s a familiar pattern to see politicians do well with their own personal investments,” said Richard Hasen, an expert on money in politics at the University of California at Irvine School of Law, noting that wealthy people often like to cut favored politicians in on financial opportunities. “That’s not to say that there is anything illegal or unethical about it, but it is how the world works.”
Perry’s financial record portrays a politician of humble rural beginnings who built both a career and comfortable lifestyle with the help of well-heeled supporters. His competition against far richer candidates will rely heavily on his deep network of conservative donors and fundraisers.
In all, Perry and his wife, Anita, who does consulting work for nonprofits, have earned about $2.4 million from real estate deals, stock trades, oil and gas leases and two trust funds. Mark Miner, a spokesman for the Perry campaign, said all of the governor’s financial dealings have been legal, ethical and repeatedly reviewed.
“Everything was fully disclosed and it’s been looked at numerous times and he filed the appropriate paperwork,” Miner said.
However, even if perfectly legal, the transactions still raise questions about Perry’s ethics, said Craig McDonald, the director of Texans for Public Justice, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign money and lobbying activities in Texas.
“It clearly looks like he got some special favors,” MacDonald said. “Perry has a lifestyle that is probably beyond even his own million-dollar finances because people want to get close for many reasons to the governor of the state of Texas.”
Perry placed the majority of his assets in blind trusts in 1996 to avoid questions about potential conflicts of interest. The governor’s office declined to provide the current value of the trust, but in September 2009, spokeswoman Allison Castle said it was worth $896,000. Perry also owns a home in College Station valued at $243,900.
On the presidential campaign trail, Perry talks about his humble upbringing in Paint Creek, a West Texas town where he worked on the family cotton farm before getting into politics. In 1991, he reported that most of his income came from his $72,000 salary as state agriculture commissioner.
His assets grew as his political career advanced and he made a number of investments. The biggest single profit reported on Perry’s tax forms was the sale of land at the Horseshoe Bay luxury development outside Austin. He purchased the lot for $314,770 in 2001 and sold it for $1,138,536 in 2007.
Perry acquired the land from his childhood friend Troy Fraser, a Republican state senator, after Perry had sold his house in Austin. “When he got the cash” from his house sale, “he bought it from me for the $300,000 (original purchase price) plus interest,” Fraser said, adding that the governor’s legal team reviewed the deal and his press office issued a news release on the day of the sale. “It was a very straightforward real estate transaction.”
Six years later, Perry sold the property to one of the resort developer’s business partners for a profit of $823,766, a transaction that fell outside the blind trust. A bank appraiser said the lot was worth the $1.1 million sale price, but the Burnet County tax appraisal office listed the land’s value at only $600,000.
Perry and the others involved have repeatedly denied that the price was inflated, insisting the county tax appraiser’s valuation was too low.
“It clearly looks like he got some special favors,” MacDonald said. “The property was sold to him low, and a buyer was found to buy it from him at a very high price.”
In another deal, Perry sold a 9.3-acre tract to computer magnate Michael Dell for nearly four times what he paid for it, with influential Texas lobbyist Mike Toomey representing Perry at the sale. Toomey later represented Merck and Co. in lobbying Texas to mandate an HPV vaccine for young girls to prevent cervical cancer.
The 9.3-acre West Austin property sold for $465,000 in 1995, when Perry was agriculture commissioner, and gave the Dell property access it needed to an adjacent municipal sewage district. Toomey had served as Perry’s chief of staff and now runs the pro-Perry political action committee “Make Us Great Again.”
Since Perry became governor, Dell and the Dell PAC have given his campaign $15,000.
Perry established his blind trust about six months after the stock deal that led Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, to request an investigation by the SEC.
On Jan. 13, 1995, Perry bought $38,875 worth of stock in Kinetic Concepts, a company owned by Jim Leininger, a San Antonio physician, conservative activist and major Perry campaign donor. Perry invested an additional $35,167 in the company on Jan. 24, 1996 — the same day he spoke at a luncheon that Leininger attended. Later that day, an investment firm bought 2.2 million shares of Kinetic Concepts stock, driving up its price. Perry sold his Kinetic Concepts holdings a month later for a $38,382 profit. Leininger and Perry acknowledged they spoke at the luncheon but denied discussing the stock.
Miner said all the transactions were legal and involved no insider information. The SEC did not act on the complaint and Leininger declined to comment. But the incident fueled Democratic Party complaints of what they call Perry’s crony capitalism.
“There have been some transactions with what you can only call cronies that have benefited the governor,” MacDonald said. “Mr. Leininger was his primary sugar daddy. The case could be made that he would not be governor today if not for a huge loan provided by Mr. Leininger in the closing days of the campaign for lieutenant governor.”
Not all of Perry’s investments have brought big returns. Perry has reported losing $308,496 from the holdings in his blind trusts from 1996 to 2009, a period that included the recent recession and stock market decline. He has requested an extension for filing his 2010 return.
Perry also owns interests in oil and gas dating back to 1991 and has earned $34,305 in royalties. The land partnership he holds with his father, J.R. Perry Co., has earned him $110,278.
Judging the business investments of politicians is difficult, said Hasen, who said public disclosure is the best recourse. “There could be things that cross the line, and (transparency) allows journalists, opposing candidates and the public to ferret out what might be an impermissible deal,” he said.