By Sari Horwitz
Saturday, Aug 27, 2011
Since Rick Perry joined the presidential race this month, his campaign entourage has included not just the standard array of political advisers and aides, but a squad of Texas law enforcement agents.
The security forces scout and secure locations days in advance. Well before the governor’s visit to Tommy’s Country Ham House in Greenville, S.C., the weekend of Aug. 20, more than a half-dozen suited and armed agents were giving orders to the crowd of more than 400.
How much is this ever-present phalanx of state policemen costing the taxpayers of Texas? They won’t know at least until after next year’s presidential election, thanks to a provision, tucked into a school finance bill in July, that will keep the governor’s travel records sealed for 18 months.
Although security around public officials has been tightened considerably since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the secrecy that surrounds Perry’s travels is unique, according to Ken Bunting, executive director of the Missouri-based National Freedom of Information Coalition.
And the governor’s critics contend that it has as much to do with politics as safety — especially after the embarrassment for Perry when taxpayers learned that they had been paying for scuba gear and golf cart rentals for officers who accompanied Perry and his wife to the Bahamas in 2004.
“I’m appalled,” said Democratic state Rep. Lon Burnam. “He wants to keep the details buried when he goes to the Bahamas.”
Indeed, this is a battle that has been raging since long before Perry decided to run for president.
Texas newspapers have tried for years to see Perry’s travel records, which would include the costs of the governor’s security detail. But the state Department of Public Safety, run by Steve McCraw, a former FBI official and a longtime Perry friend, has said that the safety of Perry and his family could be jeopardized if the public knew how many officers accompany them, where they stay and Perry’s traveling patterns.
After the Houston Chronicle, San Antonio Express and Austin American-Statesman sued the DPS, two Texas courts ruled that the records should be released. They were overturned last month by the state Supreme Court. But the case is still alive: the Supreme Court sent it back to a lower court, ordering DPS to cite precisely which records would put Perry in danger if they were released.
In the meantime, during a special session that ended July 1, the Texas Legislature, at Perry’s urging, added language to a school finance bill that will seal the governor’s travel records for 18 months — until after the 2012 presidential election. The measure would cover the records going forward, not those in the past, which have been the subject of the court fight.
One Republican legislator, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described the governor as “extremely concerned” about keeping his records sealed, and said Perry was actively lobbying key legislators to get it passed in the waning days of the special session. The legislator said Perry’s wife, Anita, also was pressing legislators on the issue.
The move to seal the records has drawn criticism from Republicans as well as Democrats.
“The money belongs to the people of Texas and they need to have an account of it,” said state Rep. David Simpson (R), a freshman from Longview who was elected with tea party backing. “You can do this without jeopardizing security.”
State officials say they do provide summaries of the information for an array of top officials, but not the specifics, citing security concerns.
“The governor believes that we need to strike the right balance of transparency and accountability to taxpayers while maintaining a priority on security,” said Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for Perry.
Before Perry’s travel records were sealed, Texas newspapers were able to shed some light on his travel and the cost to taxpayers, including the Bahamas trip.
The records, reported in 2005 by the Austin American-Statesman, showed that Perry and staff members had traveled the previous year to the Bahamas for a meeting with top campaign donor James Leininger, a supporter of public school vouchers and charter schools, his wife, and Grover Norquist, a national anti-tax advocate. The records showed $4,200 in taxpayer money was spent for the squad of six state troopers who went along, including costs for renting scuba gear, golf cars and cellphones, according to the newspaper.
Perry said later that the trip was to discuss education policy and finance with his political and technical advisers “in a setting removed from daily distractions.”
In 2009, Perry traveled to Israel where he was given the “Defender of Jerusalem” award. According to a local television report, he and his wife flew first class at more than $5,000 per ticket, paid for by an energy company financier. Four security detail officers also went on the five-day trip at a cost of more than $70,000 to taxpayers. The expenses included $17,000 for rooms at the King David Hotel, nearly $13,000 for food and more than 350 hours in overtime pay.
Perry has said in the past that most of his frequent international travel has been to promote Texas and draw business to the state.
Open-records advocates in Texas say taxpayers have a right to know the costs of Perry’s security detail and the trips, especially long after the travel has occurred.
“The Perry administration is trying to hide the true cost of his out-of-state travel to the taxpayer,” said Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice.
State Rep. Charlie Geren (R), the House Administration Committee chairman, said the provision to seal the records came largely at the insistence of DPS head McCraw. McCraw was appointed to his post by a commission of Perry appointees shortly after a fire was set at the governor’s mansion in 2008.
The fire, which almost destroyed the 153-year-old mansion, was started by an unidentified person who tossed a Molotov cocktail on the front porch. No one was in the home, which had been closed for renovation.
While Perry pays for most of his travel from his campaign account and donated funds, costs for the security detail are paid largely out of the state highway fund, derived from a gasoline tax and vehicle registration fees.
Staff writers Philip Rucker and Karen Tumulty and news researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.