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Governor Rick Perry: Big On Prayer, Not So Big On Charity

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RICK PERRY
Texas Gov. Rick Perry | Getty Images

In a forthcoming series of articles, HuffPost is taking a close look at the charitable giving of Republican presidential candidates. How much and to whom did they give? How does their giving compare with their fellow Americans? And what impact did they ultimately have?

WASHINGTON -- Texas Governor Rick Perry sounded a humble note during his speech at his national prayer event last Saturday. In front of some 30,000 people, he pivoted away from the Tea Party rhetoric that had so typified -- and electrified -- his audiences during the past year. Instead, Perry opted for a vague plea for charity.

After introductory remarks, Perry gushed: "Like all of you, I love this country deeply. ... Indeed the only thing that you love more is the living Christ. But our hearts do break for those who suffer, those afflicted by the loss of loved ones, the pain of addiction, the strife that they may find at home, those who have lost jobs, who have lost their homes, people who have lost hope."

Benevolent charity has long been a cornerstone of conservative social policy, whether in the form of a religious group organizing large-scale relief programs or a quiet donor giving a helping hand to an individual man or woman. But how well conservative politicians might practice what they preach varies dramatically.

Rick Perry has had steady work as a politician since the mid-1980s, and his income increased dramatically when he became governor of Texas in 2000. Between 2000 and 2009, he has earned $2.68 million, according to the Houston Chronicle. That's a lot of means and opportunity to give back to all those who have lost their jobs, suffered through a harrowing addiction or endured a housing foreclosure.

And Texas has plenty of people in need, whether it's the chronically unemployed in the Rio Grande Valley or the men and women huddled in Austin's crowded shelters.

Yet Perry's money hasn't answered many prayers. A review of his tax records from the mid-1990s through 2009 show the governor has contributed very little to charity. When he has, Perry has given mainly to charities connected to his family, and even then, his donations have sometimes been slight. An analysis by the San Antonio Express-News in mid-June reported that of his $2.68 million, Perry "gave half a percent to churches and religious organizations, or $14,243."

The Express-News goes on to note: "By comparison, Americans averaged gifts of nearly 1.2 percent of their incomes to churches and religious groups from 2004 to 2008, according to Empty Tomb Inc., an Illinois-based research firm specializing in U.S.-church giving trends."

When asked about the governor's contributions, a senior Perry adviser told The Huffington Post that Perry is not wealthy and never has been. The adviser did not know the details of Perry's various donations. The Governor's Office did not return a request for comment.

In 1996, Tax records show [PDF], the Perrys reported $182,318 in adjusted gross income with just $626 in gifts. Of that, $400 was non-cash donations to Goodwill. Most of the rest went to groups with a Perry tie: $100 to Perry's alma mater Texas A&M, $76 to an A&M booster group and $50 to Helping Hand Home for Children.

In 1998, according to tax records [PDF], the Perrys donated to their children's school, O'Henry Middle School. Their handout totaled $10. The Perrys later gave larger donations to Austin High School, when their two children attended in 2002 and 2003: They gave $50 each year to the school.

In 2007, tax records report [PDF] the couple donating a total of $90 to their church at the time, Tarrytown United Methodist. That year, they gave a total of $413 in cash contributions to charity. Their adjusted gross income was more than $1 million.

For many of his years in statewide elected office, Perry gave more in old clothes and used household items than cash. Goodwill and other thrift stores benefited the most from his largesse.

In 2002, the Perry family claimed in tax filings [PDF] $8,970 worth of clothes and shoes that they donated at a fair market value of $1,794.

In 2005, the Perry family claimed [PDF] one donation of clothing, shoes, and video equipment that came to $10,000 with a deductible market value of $5,000.

While it is impossible to know whether the Perrys overvalued their donations to Goodwill, experts on charitable giving say there is often a tendency to overvalue one's discarded goods. In any case, the Perrys were not scrutinized for the donations.

"It is hard to know what kinds of donations Gov. Perry has made to our organization," Jesús DeLeón-Serratos, communications manager for Goodwill Industries of Central Texas, said in an email to The Huffington Post. "While we do hand out receipts to be completed by donor (in compliance with IRS regulations -- we are not responsible for the valuation of a donated item), we do not ask for personal information and do not track who gave what."

DeLeón-Serratos said Goodwill was honored to get the donations from Perry. "We hope he continues to make donations to Goodwill and that he supports our efforts to find ways to put more Texans to work," he said. "Whatever he donates, it definitely helps fund our mission through our workforce development programs."

In 2007, the year the couple listed more than $1 million in income after selling their home, Anita Perry donated a silk beaded dress she had purchased for $7,500. She pegged the value at $2,500 in her donation to Austin's Settlement Home For Children, where she sits on the advisory board.

The Home, along with Tarrytown United Methodist Church, where the family worshiped for many years, was the biggest recipient of Perry charity.

Andi Kelly, spokeswoman for the Settlement Home, said the Perrys have long donated clothing and other items for the organization's charity garage sale fundraiser, as well as given cash contributions. The annual garage sale nets close to $500,000 for the home each year to support programs for abused and neglected children in the Austin area.

Anita Perry's "connection to us stems from her platform for helping children and empowering women, which aligns with the mission of The Settlement Home for Children," Kelly said in an email.

The Perrys have given large donations to other groups with a personal connection as well. In 2008, they gave $9,996 to the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault -- a nonprofit where Anita Perry worked.

"We were pleasantly surprised," recalled Torie Camp, the group's deputy director. "We did not know it was coming."

Perry did give more in some years than in others. In 2005, Perry gave more than $23,000, or about 12 percent of his income, to charity. While $6,235 of that value was in unwanted clothes, furniture and video equipment, he wrote checks for $5,000 to the United Fund of Cross Plains, Texas and almost $3,500 to the Helping Hand Home for Children. His increased giving may have come as a result of the pay raise he received that year.

Perry's inconsistent track record on charitable giving puts him in the company of at least one other Republican candidate. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for instance, is able to raise significant sums for organizations whose goal is to promote him and his brand, but when it comes to collecting funds for charity, the fundraising magic disappears. In 2009, tax records show, the Gingrich Foundation gave away just $135,000 to various organizations; Renewing American Leadership, Gingrich's right-wing Christian non-profit with heavy ties the evangelical community, spent more than double that amount just on promotional mailings.

Michael Nilsen of the Association of Fundraising Professionals said Perry's giving is "about average from what I've seen. Lower in some years, a little higher in some years" compared to other people in his income bracket.

Ken Berger, president of the watchdog group Charity Navigator, said someone in Perry's income bracket typically donates 3 to 4 percent of his or her income. "Some years he's below, some years above. Some years in the mid-range," he said, adding that Perry appears to have upped his contributions once he moved into the governor's mansion.

"Most of this is not showing a great philanthropist and also not showing anything significantly out of the norm," Berger said.

Jon Ward contributed to this report.

2012 Presidential Candidates: How Charitable Are They?
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