Montecito’s Toxic-Waste King
Harold Simmons’s Campaign Contributions Bought Radioactive Waste-Dumping License from Presidential Hopeful Rick Perry
Thursday, August 25, 2011
BUCKS TO RICK PERRY: Billionaire and part-time Montecitan Harold Simmons has parlayed $1.1 million in donations to Rick Perry, the aw-shucks Texas governor and presidential hopeful, into a license to dump up to 2.3 million cubic feet of radioactive waste in West Texas.
Perry’s appointees okayed a permit for Dallas-based Simmons for a low-level radioactive waste site, against staff recommendations. But everyone knew Simmons had the gov’nor’s ear and the gov’nor had Simmons’s greenbacks.
It looks like a great deal for Simmons: The project promises to yield hundreds of millions in profits, according to the L.A. Times. But if you think this was some sort of corrupt, tit-for-tat, Texas-style permit-for-money deal, Perry’s people reply with indignation.
Quizzed by reporters on whether Simmons and a long list of other major donors got perks in exchange, a Perry spokesman replied: “They get the same things that all Texans get.” If they have the dough to kick in major money to Perry’s presidential war chest, that is.
Judging from his gifts to Perry—at least $100,000 so far this year—Simmons would love to see the gov’nor in the White House, where he can really help tax-shy billionaires. I wasn’t able to reach the rarely interviewed or photographed Simmons for comment.
To get the permit, Simmons told the Dallas Business Journal, “We first had to change the law to where a private company can own a license, and we did that.” He added, “Then we got another law passed that said they can only issue one license. Of course, we were the only one that applied.” And 34 states are allowed to send their radioactive gunk to Texas after it’s finished this year.
After the 15-year permit expires, it’ll be up to the taxpayers to clean up the pollution, critics warn. Simmons, 80, is worth $5.7 billion, quite an achievement for someone who grew up in a shack without plumbing or electricity. So why did D (for Dallas) Magazine call him “Dallas’ Most Evil Genius”? And why did two of his daughters sue him in 1997 for playing no-no games with their trust?
His “real genius,” D reported in January, seems to be in making money cleaning up pollution sites: “In short, it appears that the ‘King of Superfund Sites,’ as he’s known in some circles, has figured out a way to clean up a radioactive mess one of his companies made in Ohio by — according to some experts—creating another radioactive mess in West Texas.”
After Simmons and his wife stashed their money in a trust for their daughters, the IRS began raising questions. In 1997, according to D, the New York Times asked the rhetorical question, “Why were his homes, his jet, even the jewelry his wife wore, accounted for as corporate purchases or expenses? How could he say that all his holdings formed one huge tax-exempt trust when he treated them as properties he still owned, managed, and enjoyed?”
Two of his daughters sued him for the way he managed their trust, and the “family squabble brought to light that Simmons had broken campaign-donation laws.” One daughter told the Times that her father gave her $1,000 for each blank political donation form she signed. In 1993, he was hit with a $19,800 fine for violating contribution limits. Five years later, he settled the lawsuit by paying each of his daughters $50 million. “He no longer talks to them.”
Simmons, who was Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Texas and earned a master’s in economics, borrowed money to buy a drugstore across the street from Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas. In 12 years, he owned 100 stores he sold for $50 million in 1973.
“He has given away more than $300 million,” D reported, including establishing a $20-million endowment at SMU, and he gave $50 million to establish a cancer center at the UT Southwestern Medical Center.” He gave Westmont College a million and helped the Santa Barbara Unity Shoppe purchase new quarters. And he helped Casa Esperanza Homeless Center with an 11th-hour $250,000 donation.
He also donated $3 million to the GOP’s shameful swift-boat smear on 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry. And Montecitans haven’t forgotten how, during the 1989-90 drought, Simmons was fined $25,000 for refusing to cut back landscape watering at his 23-acre estate, using enough public H₂O to keep the average family of four supplied for 28 years.
Barney Brantingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 805-965-5205. He writes online columns throughout the week and a print column on Thursdays.