WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Texas billionaire Harold Simmons has vowed to give away at least half of his fortune before he dies. That’s good news for the hospitals, youth centers and ballet companies that benefit from his largesse - not to mention the Republican Party.
The Dallas tycoon, 80, has been among the most aggressive donors to take advantage of new rules that place few limits on how much money wealthy individuals and corporations can contribute to political groups.
Though he has never run for office, Simmons could profoundly shape the course of the 2012 presidential election simply by opening his checkbook. It wouldn’t be the first time - a Simmons-controlled business in 2004 gave $3 million to the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which helped to undermine Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry by attacking his Vietnam War record.
Those familiar with Simmons’s thinking say he is motivated by a self-made businessman’s impatience with government regulation and a practical interest in protecting his holdings.
“He has companies he has built and run over the years that have been tied in knots and red tape,” said John J. Nance, author of “Golden Boy: The Harold Simmons Story.”
Simmons has declined on several occasions to speak to Reuters. He was unreachable for comment on Wednesday.
A pioneer of the leveraged buyout, Simmons is worth roughly $9.6 billion, making him the 33rd richest person in the United States according to Forbes magazine.
Simmons and his wife Annette gave $5.8 million over the past year to Republican candidates and causes. His holding company, Contran Corp., gave an additional $3 million.
The $8.8 million total is slightly less than the $10 million that casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife have given to a group affiliated with Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.
Unlike Adelson, Simmons has not put all of his eggs in one basket.
Simmons gave $5 million to American Crossroads, a “Super PAC” set up by Republican strategist Karl Rove to win control of the White House and Congress in the November elections. Contran gave another $2 million to the group.
Contran was the largest backer of Texas Governor Rick Perry’s presidential bid, with a $1 million donation to Make Us Great again, a Super PAC set up to support the campaign.
Simmons himself gave $100,000 to Americans For Rick Perry, another affiliated group, but later gave $500,000 to Winning Our Future, a Super PAC supporting rival Newt Gingrich as Perry’s campaign faded in the polls.
Contran’s political-action committee has given $5,000 donations, the legal maximum, to Republican candidates Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty as well.
That approach is common in Texas, where donors commonly spread money around in order to ensure access.
“Many of the big donors in Texas bet campaigns like old ladies bet bingo. They have several cards lined up in front of them and they’re playing them all at once,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Simmons has been one of Perry’s biggest backers during his tenure as Texas governor, a time when his company Waste Control Specialists LLC sought to set up a lucrative nuclear waste dump in the sparsely populated western part of the state. Perry sought to sideline a state commissioner who opposed expanding the scope of the project.
A company spokesman pointed to Simmons’s extensive donations to Republicans as evidence that he was not targeting Perry for any special favors.
“Every congressman who comes dragging through Texas, if he stops in his office and he’s got an ‘R’ by his name he’s going to get money,” Waste Control Specialists spokesman Chuck McDonald told Reuters in September.
Simmons has run afoul of campaign-finance laws in the past. He paid a $19,800 fine to the Federal Election Commission in 1993. In a legal dispute with two of his daughters in 1997, he admitted that he had given at least $110,000 more than allowed by using their names. One daughter claimed that he gave her $1,000 for each blank contribution letter she signed.
Simmons denied wrongdoing, and told the Dallas Morning News that he contributes to candidates because lawmakers and bureaucrats can make decisions that affect his companies.
Simmons’s donations are not limited to the political arena. He and his wife pledged in March to give more than half of their wealth to charity, joining an effort launched by investor Warren Buffett - a prominent supporter of Democratic President Barack Obama.
Simmons has pledged more than $177 million to health research efforts at the University of Texas-Southwestern in Dallas, and has pledged another $50 million to Parkland Health and Hospital System, a public hospital in Dallas.
His charitable foundation supports a wide array of causes, including some that might anger conservatives. In 2010, the Harold Simmons Foundation gave $75,000 to public broadcasting organizations, $2,500 to Planned Parenthood, and $25,000 to Public Campaign, a Washington-based organization that “aims to dramatically reduce the role of big special interest money in American politics.”
His daughter, Serena Connelly, also gives extensively to Democratic political candidates. Last year, she gave $47,250 to Democratic candidates and causes, including President Barack Obama, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
(Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Eric Walsh)
This story corrects amount of donation to $5.8 million from $5.8 billion in eighth paragraph