How the super rich and dark money influence politics : The Indicator from Planet Money The Center for Public Integrity joins The Indicator with an excerpt from The Heist, a new podcast exploring money and politics in the Trump Administration.
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Big Donors & Pay-To-Play Politics

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Big Donors & Pay-To-Play Politics

Big Donors & Pay-To-Play Politics

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

SALLY HERSHIPS: And I'm Sally Herships.

VANEK SMITH: Sally Herships, friend of the show, you have a new podcast out right now called The Heist.

HERSHIPS: Yes. It's a series all about President Trump, how power and politics work in Trump's America.

VANEK SMITH: And as part of the series, you explored the world of big political donors, including dark money.

HERSHIPS: It's real. It is a world of real human beings, very, very wealthy political donors. And these people give money to candidates in exchange for influence, and a lot of these channels are totally unregulated. And we actually got one of these big donors to talk to us. And just to be crystal clear here, he gives via dark money but also just the normal way.

VANEK SMITH: And this is a big deal because a lot of times, we just have no idea who these people are. But you talked with Doug Deason, who was very open. He's a Texas man, big Republican donor. To be clear, though, Sally, dark money is totally bipartisan. Democrats get millions and millions of dollars through dark money too.

HERSHIPS: Yeah, 100%. But Doug Deason is a Trump supporter, and he and his family gave $1 million to help get Donald Trump elected.

VANEK SMITH: Wow.

HERSHIPS: There are a lot of zeroes in that number (laughter). And so when the president was elected, Doug had some expectations. There were a couple of issues that really matter to him, and he was counting on the president to come through on his promises, including the tax cut - the tax bill that Trump had promised on the campaign trail.

VANEK SMITH: Right. And when President Trump took office, there was a Republican majority in Congress. And Doug thought, awesome. This is going to happen fast, right? The legislation is going to fly through. But that actually did not happen, and Doug got pretty frustrated.

HERSHIPS: He did (laughter). So he got in touch with his network of political donors, a lot of them in Texas. And he said, until we see some kind of action, let's just turn the spigot off.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE HEIST")

DOUG DEASON: I made it very clear to politicians in both the House and the Senate that Dallas is the piggy bank of the Republican Party - North Texas. Let me rephrase that - North Texas. Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding areas - that more money comes out of here for Republicans than anywhere else in the country.

VANEK SMITH: Today on the show, Sally, you and reporter Sarah Kleiner talk with Doug Deason about this world of money and politics and what happens when you turn the spigot off.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE HEIST")

HERSHIPS: One thing we want to make clear is that donors like Doug Deason do not typically make themselves available to talk to reporters like us about their political donations. But Deason was happy to talk.

DEASON: All right. I'm now recording.

SARAH KLEINER: And it turns out he's a really nice guy. We talked for more than two hours.

HERSHIPS: Most Americans have not heard of this guy. In Texas, though, he's a known quantity in political circles.

KLEINER: Doug Deason lives in a very expensive neighborhood in Dallas. His neighbors include George W. Bush and Don Henley of the Eagles. He's married, has two kids. He attends an evangelical megachurch.

HERSHIPS: Well, here's the thing that surprised me about Doug Deason. He is not a self-made rich person.

KLEINER: That's right. His money comes from his father. His dad is Darwin Deason, a billionaire who made his fortune by selling his data company to Xerox in 2010. His dad is a flamboyant character. He's got a huge yacht, private planes. And he's been married at least six times.

HERSHIPS: So, Sarah, one thing we haven't talked about yet - what does Doug Deason do for a living? What's his job?

KLEINER: He manages his family's money, his father's money. These are very large investments.

HERSHIPS: One Dallas journalist described Doug Deason as an average rich guy, which is kind of odd because he's not.

KLEINER: He gives millions of dollars to politicians like Donald Trump and what he thinks and has to say ends up influencing American politics on a national scale.

HERSHIPS: Exactly. When I talked to Doug Deason, everything came back to politics. It's more than a hobby for him.

So you got involved basically to make change. That's why you're a donor - to change the country.

DEASON: You can make change in a lot of ways. The way to make change at a scale that really makes a difference is through legislation and through politics, you know, getting the right people nominated and elected. We wanted to make change. And we're conservatives, but we're not conservatives that believe that we should go back to the '50s or that things should stay static. I mean, we believe in progress. I mean, we're really classic liberals. You can always improve and make things better.

KLEINER: I found this tape of Doug Deason on a local Dallas conservative talk radio show. I want to play this for you. Here he is talking about why he didn't accept an ambassadorship that Trump offered. He wouldn't tell us where he was going to go, but this is a classic reward for big-time donors like Doug Deason.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEASON: You know, after turning down the ambassadorship, which didn't surprise them because they knew that, you know, I'm on a mission.

JACKI PICK: You've got work to do. You don't have time to go hang out at some chalet in the Alps.

DEASON: No, and I can't do it from another country on the government's payroll.

PICK: Right.

DEASON: So I just told them that's what I wanted to do, and so they set me up with Jared and his team.

HERSHIPS: Just to be clear here, he's talking about Jared Kushner. So basically, Doug Deason turned down an ambassadorship so that he could stay at home and keep working on getting politicians to do what he thinks needs to be done. I mean, some might call the system pay-to-play. Is that how he sees it?

KLEINER: Doug Deason sees it as expecting members of Congress to do what they've said they're going to do and the promises that they've made on the campaign trail and the promises that they've made to him in private conversations when he's giving them campaign contributions. I asked him about this.

Do you think that contributing money to these lawmakers gets you access that other people don't have?

DEASON: Of course.

KLEINER: Do you think that's fair?

DEASON: You know, I've never really thought about if that's fair or not.

KLEINER: Doug Deason has leverage that 99% of Americans don't have, and it was very surprising that he hadn't really thought much about this.

You hear a lot from people like Obama or Elizabeth Warren who critique big donors who say they have an outsized ability to influence change...

DEASON: Right.

KLEINER: ...Through campaign contributions.

DEASON: Well, that's absolutely 100% true. I mean, that's why we do it because it gives us access to - you know, I mean, I've never - we don't give a dime without getting a - I mean, I have 25 - easily 25, 30 senators' cellphones, you know? I have countless - not countless but many congressmen and women cellphone numbers.

KLEINER: I mean, but let's get back to what you were saying, though - with the critique from people about how big donors are taking advantage of their situation, that they have access and they have money and what you think about that.

DEASON: Well, I don't think it's taking advantage. It is what it is. I mean, it's obviously - you sort of buy access. I mean, it's no secret there. Some of my best closest friends are, you know, the attorney general of Texas, you know? I mean, I've got really good friends throughout state and federal government, and they're good friends. We do - we fish together. We do things together and all that. How did I build that relationship? - is, you know, one, I'm not in this for myself. And they know that, so, you know, I've never, ever, ever been accused of being, you know, in politics to benefit me or Dad or our businesses because we don't have any businesses, you know? We just invest, you know? There's nothing that they can do for us other than, you know, create a safe country to live in, safe state, safe city, you know, and then just help other people.

HERSHIPS: We're headed for an election and there's this whole formal, incredibly public process that takes place. But at the same time, behind the scenes, donors like Doug Deason are also incredibly powerful.

KLEINER: Exactly. And Doug decent has to know he has a lot of influence because after he and other wealthy donors cut off funding, they got what they wanted. Republicans very quickly made tax reform their top priority. And that's when Doug Deason started writing checks again.

HERSHIPS: The Dallas piggy bank was open.

KLEINER: The Dallas piggy bank was open.

VANEK SMITH: This is an excerpt of The Heist, a new podcast from the Center for Public Integrity. Check it out wherever you get your podcasts. Special thanks to the team at the Center for Public Integrity, including Curtis Fox, Alison MacAdam, Allan Holmes, Lucas Brady Woods, Brett Forrest, Camille Petersen and Ali Swenson.

This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Jamila Huxtable and Darian Woods. It was fact-checked by Sean Saldana. THE INDICATOR is edited by Paddy Hirsch and is a production of NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

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