WASHINGTON -- Texas Governor Rick Perry is set to officially jump into the Republican presidential primary race with unmatched backing from a collection of independent groups raising unlimited money from corporations and individuals to help get him the Republican nomination. The connections that these groups have to Perry's inner circle, however, are raising serious questions about their supposed independence and the appearance of collusion.
There are currently seven Super PACs -- independent political committees that can accept unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations and unions -- supporting Perry's bid. The most recently formed is Make Us Great Again, which is, perhaps, the most emblematic of the veil of independence worn by these candidate-centric committees.
The committee was founded by former Perry chief of staff and longtime associate Mike Toomey. Toomey is so close to the Perry inner circle he even co-owns a private island in New Hampshire with Perry's campaign manager Dave Carney. Toomey was also listed in a Texas Tribune report on the "folks" behind Perry.
The other pro-Perry Super PACs are no better in presenting themselves as independent.
Jobs for Vets Fund and Veterans for Rick Perry were started by former Perry legislative director Dan Shelley. Veterans for Rick Perry even made a revealing error on their initial statement of organization by checking a box stating that the committee supported one candidate and listing Rick Perry as that candidate. Super PACs are forbidden from explicitly supporting one candidate. An amended statement was filed to correct this error. Shelley has set a $1 million fundraising target for campaign efforts in the early primary states Iowa and South Carolina.
Another committee, Americans for Rick Perry, is run by California political consultant Bob Schuman, a former campaign consultant for former Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas), Perry's political mentor. Schuman’s consulting firm has also represented the pharmaceutical company Merck, which was represented in Texas by Toomey. Toomey’s lobbying for Merck became a scandal in Texas after Perry mandated that all schoolgirls receive a vaccination against HPV -- a vaccination that was made by Merck. The ensuing controversy led the state legislature to override the governor and block the mandate. Schuman's effort has so far been underwritten by a large contribution from Texas billionaire Harold Simmons, a major Perry donor who has used his political clout to gain support from Perry’s administration to bury nuclear waste in western Texas.
Toomey has recently attempted to corner the market in pro-Perry Super PACs by telling Perry donors that Make Us Great Again is the only true pro-Perry group: “Our advice is to avoid any other group claiming to be ‘the’ pro-Perry independent effort and, when the timing is right, to support Make Us Great Again.”
Schuman and Americans for Rick Perry have gotten behind Toomey’s move to assert his PAC as the leader of the pro-Perry unlimited money groups. Schuman told the Wall Street Journal, “To the extent that there is an official PAC… they’re it.” Toomey had already lured away two top donors who had been working for Schuman's Americans for Rick Perry including Elizabeth Blakemore, a consultant who's past clients include Koch Industries.
Toomey did not return a call for comment by The Huffington Post.
It would be illegal for any of the Super PACs supporting Perry's bid to coordinate with the campaign, even prior to a formal announcement. The incredibly close ties between the individuals behind the pro-Perry PACs and the inner circle of the Perry campaign raise serious questions and doubts about the independent efforts of the groups.
Shelley, who runs the two pro-Perry veterans groups, told The Huffington Post that he has not talked to Carney about his Super PAC efforts as, "that's against the law."
Shelley did, however, go on to describe what animates his efforts: "I don't think you'll find someone that doesn't know Rick would ever start what I just did. You're just not going to get a guy that wakes up one day and says, 'Oh, I think I'll start this.' I can tell you I know him, I know his heart, I know how hard he works, I know his discipline and I'm politically involved. So yeah, I'm political."
He also explained his close relationship with Toomey, "Mike [Toomey] and I served together. Mike and I and Gov. Perry, we all served in the [Texas] House together. Mike and I used an office together when we lobbied together. We currently share clients in Austin. We both represent Harris County government. We all know each other well."
Texans for Public Justice Director Craig McDonald told The Huffington Post, "It's difficult to believe that none of these people who are deeply inside the Perry circle not have been talking about their plans."
Carney refused to comment for this story. The Gov. Perry's spokesperson did not return calls or emails seeking comment.
Similar candidate-focused Super PACs for other Republican candidates have raised concerns about coordination. Restore Our Future PAC, the pro-Mitt Romney committee, was founded by three veterans of Romney's 2008 run for the Republican presidential nod.
Super PACs have also been formed to support the bids of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.).
In a statement issued Thursday, Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer expressed a growing sentiment among reform groups: "These Super PACs are nothing more than shadow arms of a presidential campaign that provide a vehicle for massive circumvention and evasion of the contribution limits applicable to donations made directly to a presidential candidate’s campaign committee."
None of this comes as a surprise to close watchers of Perry and Carney's electoral efforts. The duo has a long history of using every tool at their disposal in elections, including organizing outside group efforts.
"The notion that Mike Toomey would start a political effort on behalf of Rick Perry that's truly independent of Rick Perry is truly laughable," Jeff Rotkoff, an Austin-based consultant with the anti-Perry Back to Basics PAC, told The Huffington Post.
In 2004, Texas Republicans successfully secured a ballot position for the Texas Green Party's presidential candidate Ralph Nader in an effort to bleed votes from the Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). An subsequent investigation into that effort found that both Carney and Make Us Great Again's Toomey were intimately involved in the Green Party ballot scheme.
The Federal Election Commission (FEC) determined that Carney's efforts to secure the ballot place for the Green Party violated campaign finance law and stated that Carney "knowingly and willfully" broke the law. Prosecutors, however, did not pursue charges.
"Governor Perry and Dave Carney are both masters at leveraging whatever the rules of the game are," Harvey Kronberg, editor and publisher of The Quorum Report, told The Huffington Post. "It would be completely uncharacteristic for Team Perry not to make sure their big money guys were not completely involved in the game."
Big money is one thing that Perry does well. He's also been accustomed to a fundraising environment that favors the kind of unlimited contributions that Super PACs can accept on the federal level.
Unlike under federal campaign law, Texas does not have contribution limits. According to a report by Texans for Public Justice, half of the $104 million Perry raised for his three gubernatorial races came from just 204 mega-donors who donated $100,000 or more.
As the chairman of the Republican Governors Association (RGA), a 527 political nonprofit, Perry has also been able to raise unlimited sums of money. The RGA under Perry has been a fundraising powerhouse, pulling in $22.1 million in the first half of 2011 -- $10 million more than the committee raised during the first halves of the last two comparable years, 2007 and 2009.
"This guy's a fundraising magnet," TPJ's McDonald said. "Corporations will be lining up to give to whatever Super PAC can give them the most bang for their buck."
As these Super PACs ramp up their efforts to help Perry they will undoubtedly draw more attention to their supposed independence.
Wertheimer stated the intention of reform groups to pursue this issue into the future, saying, "Democracy 21 is currently exploring possible legal challenges to the new presidential Super PACs and their fictional 'independence' from the presidential candidates they are supporting."
“It's clear that this [committee] is nothing more than a covert political action committee fueled by long-time associates of Rick Perry to give the false appearance of a draft,” one veteran political consultant based out of Austin said about Make Us Great Again. “In that sense, it may well violate existing federal statutes with regard to so-called [Super PAC] committees. That is a question, however, for the courts to decide -- as I'm sure they will when the watchdog groups in Washington review this group."