MICHELE NORRIS, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block. Texas is a state where millionaires are plentiful and political contribution limits are lax. In Rick Perry's career as governor, he's raised about half his campaign cash from just over 200 donors. He's faced criticism, notably in this week's Tea Party debate, for money he's accepted. And Perry's administration has helped many of the big donors. NPR's Peter Overby reports on one of them.
PETER OVERBY: Perry defended taking a contribution from a drug company and then mandating use of the company's new vaccine.
Governor RICK PERRY: I raised about $30 million. And if you're saying that I can be bought for 5,000, I'm offended.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
OVERBY: Actually, the drug company, Merck, has given Perry $28,500 overall. But that's still pocket change compared to what Perry's truly big donors have done, donors such as Harold Simmons. An 80-year-old billionaire, Simmons is a political player. He gave millions of dollars to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004, financing ads that kneecapped Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. For Rick Perry, Simmons has anted up roughly $3 million over the past decade. Simmons also owns Waste Control Specialists LLC, working in the heavily regulated industry of radioactive waste disposal. Craig McDonald of the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice says those two facts go together.
CRAIG MCDONALD: There has been no secret that Harold Simmons' direct self-interest lies in building, permitting and operating his hazardous waste dump and low-level nuclear waste dump in West Texas. And the wheels have been greased at every turn.
OVERBY: In 2003, the Texas Legislature took the state-run radioactive waste program and made it a private monopoly for Waste Control Specialists. Simmons later bragged about the lobbying that accomplished that. Waste Control Specialists owns the site in West Texas, but it needed an environmental review. A panel of eight state employees fended off corporate lobbyists and the Perry administration for four years to produce their report. Glenn Lewis was on that panel.
GLENN LEWIS: We knew from the beginning that this permit was intended to be issued.
OVERBY: And they understood why.
LEWIS: The realization that Harold Simmons was a top campaign contributor to Governor Perry.
OVERBY: Despite that, the panel said: No, radioactive waste should not be buried so close to big aquifers.
LEWIS: I am frankly surprised even now that a team of engineers and geologists, knowing what the political expectations were, still worked up the nerve to say: No, it's not safe.
OVERBY: Next, Waste Control Specialists needed license approval from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. All three commissioners were Perry appointees. One of them, Larry Soward, says complaints were pouring in. He thought a public hearing was called for. The other two commissioners said no.
LARRY SOWARD: They voted to issue the license without sending it to a hearing, and I voted against that.
OVERBY: In the end, the commission gave the go-ahead to Waste Control Specialists. The commission's top staffer joined the company as a lobbyist. Glenn Lewis quit his job. Larry Soward didn't seek another term on the commission. Soward says he's still bothered by the lack of any public hearing.
SOWARD: I think that generations to come are going to have a real problem from that site that they're going to have to deal with.
OVERBY: Now, up to this point, Waste Control Specialists had been developing a small facility, one where Texas, one other state and the federal government could bury low-level radioactive waste. But a corporate report lays out a vision unique in this country: one-stop shopping for the entire nation's hazardous, toxic and radioactive waste. It would cover more than 20 square miles. A company executive calls it the Cadillac of waste facilities. But he says it only works financially on a large scale. So, in January, the Texas Legislature said Waste Control Specialists can import radioactive waste from 34 additional states. Chuck McDonald, a spokesman for Waste Control Specialists, says the environmental concerns are exaggerated.
CHUCK MCDONALD: That is the most geologically tested plot of land on planet Earth.
OVERBY: Equally exaggerated, he says, are the suggestions that Simmons' campaign money bought Perry's support.
MCDONALD: The criticism of the governor, it's all unfounded. The notion that we've somehow benefited is laughable.
OVERBY: A spokesman for Perry didn't respond to requests for comment. Harold Simmons is now fostering Perry's White House ambitions. This summer, he gave $100,000 to a group that rallied Perry supporters for Iowa's straw poll. Back in 2006, Simmons told the Dallas Business Journal that one of the most influential things for business success is, quote, "the policy of the federal government." Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.