Thursday, May 21, 2015

American Phoenix funding source sleuthed out, wants his money back

One of the largest donors to the "foundation" that has been secretly filming Texas legislators in recent weeks turns out to be a billionaire and a harsh critic of higher education.  David Saleh Rauf and Lauren McGaughey at the HouChron did the gumshoe work.

A private foundation led by billionaire oilman and higher education critic Jeff Sandefer has given $200,000 in recent years to help bankroll a conservative nonprofit now at the center of a scheme to secretly film lawmakers and lobbyists, tax filings show.

Tax records for Sandefer's Ed Foundation, a philanthropic tax-exempt organization that spreads cash to dozens of causes, provide the first connection to a funding source for the group that over the last six months has strapped hidden cameras onto a band of operatives to track the state's political elite.

Reached for comment Thursday, Sandefer said he was not aware of the group's plan to secretly film lawmakers and was unhappy with his investment after he received no feedback on how the group was using his money.

"I was unaware that they were planning to film politicians. Our intent was that they were going to train journalists," Sandefer said. "We were unhappy with a lack of progress in training journalists and asked for the money back. And we did not receive any money back."

So you have to wonder what it is he wanted for his 200 large.

As a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization, the American Phoenix Foundation does not have to disclose donors and has refused requests to do so, saying only that its source of money has stemmed from more than 11,000 small donors.

A private foundation like Sandefer's, however, must disclose all grantees and grant amounts on an annual filing to the IRS. Tax filings for Sandefer's foundation show $100,000 donations to the American Phoenix foundation in 2011 and 2013, the last publicly available information.

Sandefer, a board member of the Austin-based conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation and one-time adviser to former Gov. Rick Perry, said (Foundation founder Joseph) Basel approached him for the 2011 grant. After the first $100,000, Sandefer said he received no indication from Basel how the money was being used. After he agreed to give the foundation a second $100,000 in 2013, he expected a progress report but received none.

"We did not get into specifics of what they were going to do. I never got that far. I never heard a specific plan to do anything," Sandefer said. "I have no legal right to ask for that, but I would like my (second) contribution returned."

Sounds a little sour grape-y to me.  But my original suspicions have been confirmed.

State lawmakers who have been targeted by the secret videotaping operatives say they were not surprised to hear Sandefer's name as a potential major donor behind the group. Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, said Sandefer's connection only heightened his suspicion that the group originally set out to target Republican House Speaker Joe Straus and his allies.

"It's all about transparency," said Larson, who said he has been approached six times this week by American Phoenix operatives. "It's unfortunate that some of the fringe elements in our party continue to take this approach to what we're doing in the Texas House."

Sandefer has been a prolific political donor in recent years, contributing more than more $1 million to conservative candidates and political action committees since 2010. That includes more than $400,000 to a political action committee called Accountability First that took aim at Straus and his top lieutenants during last year's primary. Sandefer also gave $100,000 to state Rep. Scott's Turner's campaign to challenge Straus for the position of House Speaker.

George Strake has also been a player with APF, albeit at the smaller tables.

A foundation run by former Texas Secretary of State and one-time state GOP chairman George Strake, a staunch Republican and former TPPF board member who has called for a more conservative House speaker, also gave the American Phoenix Foundation a total of $30,000 between 2011 and 2013 to help launch "training programs."

And The State Policy Network, a national umbrella group for conservative think tanks that counts TPPF and the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute among its state members, also gave a $25,000 grant to the Phoenix Foundation in 2012.

Combined, the grants reflect a total of $255,000 in funding to the American Phoenix Foundation over a three-year period.

More on Sandefer.

Sandefer has never sought elective office, but he once was one of the most influential men under the pink dome. A long-time friend and donor of then-Gov. Rick Perry, the ex-University of Texas adjutant professor drew widespread derision from the higher education community with his "Seven Breakthrough Solutions," a set of business-oriented policy recommendations for the state's public colleges and universities.

Other than a brief and controversial effort at Texas A&M to give teachers cash bonuses for good student evaluations, however, Sandefer's proposals largely have been rejected by higher education leaders.

What he did accomplish was to set off years of infighting at the University of Texas System, between those who supported Sandefer's approach and those that backed the flagship's president and its history of strong academic research. The feud continues to simmer, with new UT System Chancellor William McRaven now butting heads with regent Wallace Hall.

Isn't it amazing how these concentric circles all contain the name 'Rick Perry'?

"(Sandefer) was the mastermind, supposedly, of the greatest attack on excellence in higher education in the history of our state," said Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a leading higher education policymaking and long-time critic of Sandefer's methods.

It's always nice to find out who the puppetmasters are in these schemes.  And even more fun when they turn their knives on each other.  Trust me; nobody's going anywhere until we find out how much Dan Patrick -- and perhaps Greg Abbott -- knew about this plot.

1 comment:

Gadfly said...

Good stuff; I didn't have time to knock out a blog post, between work and updating my Blue Bell posts as the listeria train wreck widens.