November 7, 2006
Those who follow Texas politics might call Houston homebuilder Bob Perry a modern day kingmaker. Although Perry skips pomp, circumstance and much of the flashy nonsense associated with kingmakers past and present, he is a formidable force in the Lone Star State and is fast becoming one in states across the union.
He tends to operate behind the scenes, but his money stands tall, front and center, usually showing up in what some call shadowy organizations that pay for negative political advertisements that attack candidates who don't share his staunchly conservative, and pro-business values.
The man who stepped onto the national political "back stage" by funding the Swift Boat Veteran for Truth ads questioning John Kerry's Vietnam War record, has over the years purchased a great deal of political influence in his home state, and there is suggestive evidence that Perry and the interests he supports, might like to export that Texas style influence to states across the nation.
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 system of unlimited political donations and the sort of influence that can offer.
"Year after year, Bob Perry is Texas' single largest political donor," said Wheat.
And, at the height of this Congressional and Senate election cycle, Bob Perry has gone national yet again.
In fact, Bob Perry is the largest single political donor in the United States according to Federal Election Records. Perry has spent around $9 million this election cycle to fund electioneering communication groups called 527s, named after a provision in the tax code. Television ads have been paid for by Perry funded groups like Economic Freedom Fund, Americans for Honesty in Issues and in several states, phones have rung, and those on the receiving heard what is called a survey but actually a push poll recording, thousands made, paid for by Perry and carried out by a group called Freeeats.com.
Bob Perry supports President Bush's conservative agenda. This year, he also funded a group called The Free Enterprise Fund, a 527 that is seeking to counter the liberal messages of MoveOn.org.
When it comes to pocketbook issues, homebuilder Perry has strongly supported tort reform and legislation that is especially friendly to homebuilders in Texas. Through campaign donations and the funding of extensive lobbying efforts, the Houston homebuilder played a direct role in overhauling the Texas Civil Courts.
There are organizations and business groups that would like to see similar changes on a national scale. Many pro-business interests subscribe to the theory that the courts are biased and tend to rule in favor of the consumer, even when not warranted. Bob Perry was instrumental in reining in that behavior, what pro-business interests say was an out of control civil court system in Texas.
Now there is a great deal of speculation into why Perry has been so motivated to provide a generous flow of cash into campaigns in places like Iowa, Colorado, Indiana and Tennessee.
Tennessee's Democratic Party Chairman says he thinks that Bob Perry's funding of an especially negative ad attacking Democrat Harold Ford's Armani suits and expensive cigars was motivated purely by power.
"They (Republicans) need to control Congress to prevent investigations into Republican wrongdoing," said Bob Tuke, the state's Democratic Party Chair.
He called the Republican Opponent, Bob Corker, just one of theirs.
Coincidentally, Bob Corker, like Bob Perry, made a great deal of his fortune in the building and real estate industry. Many of Tennessee Republicans' biggest supporters are also from the real estate and building industry.
Like much of the national homebuilder community, Bob Perry may be interested in maintaining an atmosphere in Congress that will seek overhaul of the nation's civil court system and more "right to repair" legislation.
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.
That release went on to say that trial lawyers, under the guise of consumer advocacy, are subjecting homebuilders to costly and unfair litigation fees.
Bob Perry's company is no stranger to lawsuits.
According to a 2003 Dallas Morning News article, Perry has been sued 20 times since 1985. The largest suit involved Perry and other developers and was known as the Brio case. The case involved 1,700 plaintiffs whose homes were built over a toxic waste dump outside Houston.
But, pro-business tort reform advocates cite an epidemic of frivolous lawsuits. The American Tort Reform Association calls the American Judicial system the most expensive in the industrialized world, costing $246 billion a year.
Critics of the reforms say they could have a chilling effect on lawsuits that seek to bring to light corporate misconduct.
If Bob Perry's latest foray into national politics has roots in the desire for homebuilder friendly judicial overhauls, it may be worth noting what has happened in Texas.
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 protect new homebuyers in much the same way lemon car laws protect new car buyers. Ahmed, the president of The Homeowners for Better Building organization couldn't 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.
But Ahmed says she thinks the busloads of elderly lobbyist were in fact brought in, fed breakfast and along the way, educated by pro-business coaches about so-called frivolous lawsuits, in what Ahmed believes was a smoke and mirrors politics move that was 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 homebuilder/developer David Weekly. She and others say that Tort reform efforts in Texas were bankrolled directly and through political donations by David Weekly and Houston developer and Republican money man, Bob Perry.
From 1997 through 2002, The Weekly family, the Perry Family and the TLR gave over $5 million to various state races, including judicial races across Texas.
Since the Brio case was resolved, after a $200 million settlement, Perry has made tort reform homebuilder friendly legislation his main focus according to most observers.
Back before George W. Bush became Governor of Texas, the homebuilder lobby 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.
But, according to a number consumers like Janet Ahmed, the right to repair soon became the right to delay leaving homebuyers at the mercy of the homebuilder. Later legislation made it even tougher for homebuyers to prove damage had been caused during the original construction. And, as reported in a 2004 Los Angeles Times article, the new laws limited how much money could be awarded to the homebuyer.
The Los Angeles Times article reported that at the same time builders were starting to add arbitration clauses to their contracts forcing unhappy homeowners to take complaints before private arbitrators, rather than a judge and jury. The Times said that in 2003, inspectors, chosen by a homebuilder industry dominated panel determined the facts on which the arbitration was decided.
In a nutshell, the binding arbitration clauses have the ability to drive homebuyers out of the public courts where judges, inspectors and lawyers are cheaper than arbitration services.
"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 Ahmed who said if the homebuyer fixes the problem because its impossible to live with, they then forfeit their warranty.
At Ahmed's organization's Web site HOBB.ORG, there are countless horror stories of the American Dream turned nightmare, stories where individuals and families discover toxic mold or shoddy construction threatening their most important material investment, only to find their legal recourse neutered.
Andrew Wheat has written that groups like Public Citizen, Consumers Union and Homeowners Against Deficient Dwellings say arbitration amounts to a Kangaroo court.
A few years ago, Wheat and members of Texans for Public Justice dug and found information that suggested former House Leader Tom Delay's Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee might have been engaged in improper and illegal misuse of corporate campaign money. The work Wheat did, helped lead to Delay's eventual indictment on conspiracy and money laundering charges.
Bob Perry was the largest donor to DeLay's Republican PAC.
Wheat says his organization has followed Bob Perry's long money trail for years.
In Texas he's "motivated by a push to limit damages from homeowner lawsuits"
Regardless of his motives, his impact has been felt throughout Texas politics.
In a recent interview with West Virginia Public Radio, Jake Bernstein, editor of "The Texas Observer," said, "people don't pay enough attention to who's paying for campaigns."
He noted that in Texas, there hasn't been the sort of debate there should have been on the issue of campaign finance reform, especially since so many members of the Republican legislature, the governor and others have all benefited from people like Bob Perry.
Still, theories swirl across the political landscape as to why Bob Perry would spend so much money to effect Congressional and Senate elections across the country.
Janet Ahmed says that Bob Perry led an effort in Texas to regulate the home buying public by creating an agency that hinders homebuyers from getting warranty work done.
Ahmed says this is coming to the rest of the country.
"If the wealthy Texas based homebuilders are able to limit liability in Texas that they are also influencing the political arena in other states to do the same thing," she said.
The widely known conservative Tennessee columnist Frank Cagle wouldn't speculate on Bob Perry's intentions except to say "a Texas developer probably knows Karl Rove."