While the East Coast braces itself for the ravages of Hurricane Irene this weekend, a tempest of another kind will be building in Texas.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry is attending a Christian "call to action" retreat for top donors at the Texas Hills country ranch of one of his biggest patrons and political supporters, prominent San Antonio doctor and hospital-bed magnate James Leininger. Other co-hosts of this weekend's event include several prominent social conservatives, such as Paul Pressler, a retired judge and well-known Southern Baptist, and David Barton, the evangelical founder of the group WallBuilders.
Barton, a former head of the Texas Republican party, has faced criticism for claiming that Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders don't deserve credit for the monumental changes in the nation's civil rights laws that took place in the 1950s and 60s. He and other conservative Texas millionaires have launched a series of campaigns to revise the state's textbooks to dispute that the Constitution provides for separation of church and state, and also to frame U.S. history in the context of ongoing clashes between Christian and Muslim civilizations.
But Barton's profile pales in comparison to that of Leininger, the state's leading social-conservative activist whose influence on Perry is legion. Texans for Public Justice has dubbed Leininger Perry's "Heavenly Host," outlining just how interconnected the two have been over the years, with Leininger donating $239,233 in official contributions to Perry's gubernatorial campaigns, and Perry doling out a series of government grants to Leininger's various business enterprises.
In fact, Leininger was instrumental in a last-minute financial boost that helped catapult Perry into the lieutenant governor's post in 1998, setting him up to ascend to governor when his predecessor, George W. Bush became president in 2000. Perry narrowly won that race against Democrat John Sharp, and did so only after taking out a $1.1 million loan to help fuel a last-minute media blitz. Leininger, along with two other conservative Texas businessmen, guaranteed the mega-loan.
Leininger also played a role in a scandal involving former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's (R-TX) fundraising, which was aimed at improperly meddling in Texas state politics and redistricting.
Despite helping to bankroll conservative candidates, Leininger failed to secure a GOP-majority in the Texas state house in 1998 so he turned other means, Texans for Public Justice points out.
Leininger was the second largest individual contributor to DeLay's Texans for a Republican Majority PAC, or TRMPAC, donating $142,500. The top individual contributor was homebuilder Bob Perry (no relation), the largest funder of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. TRMPAC's John Colyandro directed his accountant to send $152,000 in funds to Texas House Speaker candidate Tom Craddick to hand out to Texas House candidates. That same week, Leininger gave TRMPAC $100,000.
TRMPAC was later found to have funneled illegal corporate campaign contributions to local Texas races, and a court ordered it to pay $196,600 in damages and attorney fees. In Texas, corporate contributions can only be used for administrative costs of campaigns, not for any purpose aimed at influencing voters.
One of the people lobbying at that time for the TRMPAC donor company, Burlington Northern, was Michael Scanlon. Scanlon, a former DeLay staffer, was a key figure in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. Scanlon is now serving 20 months in prison for his role in the pay-to-play operation.