In late November, Bunni Pounds was wrapping up an impressive fundraising spree for Van Taylor, a Republican running for an open congressional seat in North Texas. Pounds aimed to raise half a million dollars in less than five weeks. The fundraiser, featuring Rafael Cruz (Ted Cruz’s father) and held at the million-dollar Plano home of commercial real estate developer Bryan Kaminski, would put her over the top.
A check for $10,800 earned donors eight tickets to the shindig and the title of “chairman.” Tim Dunn, the conservative mega-donor and benefactor of Empower Texans, was apparently enticed. Two days before the fundraiser, he cut the requisite five-figure check to Taylor. Pounds boasts on her fundraising website that she hit her mark, which federal campaign finance records show earned her a tidy $82,700.
Thirteen days after the Plano party, Pounds made a big announcement: She was launching her own congressional bid. Pounds is running to replace retiring Congressman Jeb Hensarling, who personally tapped Pounds to take the Dallas-area 5th Congressional District seat he’s held since 2003. Her main qualification? For the better part of a decade, Pounds worked as the political fundraiser for Hensarling and, more recently, for a long list of other GOP candidates, including many prominent Texas conservatives like Van Taylor. On its website, Bunni Pounds & Associates claims to have raised more than $10 million for congressional candidates and “other political clients.” Pounds recently told NBC DFW that the goal of her company was to “make sure our conservative liberty-minded candidates were taken care of.”
Pounds worked as the chief fundraiser for Hensarling’s campaign as he rose to one of the most powerful positions in Washington: chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, which oversees banking and Wall Street. She also was the fundraiser for a PAC that Hensarling used to dole out funds to his GOP colleagues. A vehement advocate for extensive deregulation of the financial sector, Hensarling authored the Financial CHOICE Act, a bill that aims to cut the legs out from Dodd-Frank. Pounds was, in turn, charged with securing millions of dollars in contributions from donors, many of whom were in industries that had business before his committee.
After years of only raising money for Hensarling, Pounds set up her own political fundraising and consulting shop in 2015 and within two years had turned it into a half-a-million-dollar business with nine employees, according to her campaign website. The site also boasts that Pounds “is now seen as one of the top fundraisers in North Texas from Fort Worth all the way to Tyler.”
This background raises questions not only about Pounds’ qualifications for office, but about whose debt she’ll be in should she become a member of Congress. Groveling to donors day in and day out is enough to compromise your average politician, to say nothing of someone whose expertise that was before they became a politician.
Nonetheless, Hensarling’s political clout in Washington has won her endorsements from a long list of conservative heavy hitters. He even asked President Trump to support Pounds, the New York Times reported. When that didn’t work, Hensarling got his close ally Vice President Mike Pence to tweet out an endorsement.
Still, Pounds’ path to office is not without obstacles. In the crowded GOP primary to take over Hensarling’s seat, she came in second behind state Representative Lance Gooden, who she’s now facing in a hotly contested (and expensive) runoff battle. Pounds has cast her campaign as a grassroots project rooted in conservative evangelicalism, while blasting Gooden as a liberal Republican who is insufficiently opposed to abortion and taxation.
If she wins the runoff, which in this deep-red district likely means she’ll be headed to Congress, it will be in no small part because of the big money she’s been able to raise. She may be campaigning as a grassroots conservative, but she’s fishing for money from the same swampy ponds she frequented as Hensarling’s fundraiser.
Pounds has raised nearly $725,000. About 55 percent of that haul came from big donors — many of whom are also donors for Hensarling and other Pounds clients — who have given more than $2,000 each.
Over the past three election cycles, Pounds was also charged with pulling cash together for the Committee to Protect Prosperity and Free Enterprise, a Hensarling-associated joint fundraising PAC that was used to distribute money to GOP committee members.
According to an Observer review of FEC records, the PAC has over the years leaned heavily on a handful of Dallas business moguls, including pawn-shop magnate Morgan Jones, billionaire banker Andy Beal, and golf-course king Eric Affeldt.
The Committee to Protect has also taken in tens of thousands of dollars from PACs affiliated with payday lenders, including the Irving-based ACE Cash Express. All told, the PAC has paid out $60,000 to Pounds’ shop for fundraising consulting, including about $28,000 just two months before she announced her own candidacy.
“Someone who was working on stuff like this could definitely have their own advantage running for office,” said Daniel Weiner, senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, which advocates for stronger regulation of money in politics. “To the extent that [Pounds] has long-standing relationships with donors, people would have to wonder who she’s looking out for once in office.”
Pounds’ campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Gooden’s allies have attacked Pounds as a Washington insider. An allied super PAC that has spent big money going after Pounds is funded by Dallas hotelier Monty Bennett. According to the Texas Tribune, Bennett was Gooden’s largest political funder while in the Texas Legislature and passed legislation that explicitly benefited Bennett. Pounds supporters have pounced on this as evidence that Bennett would unduly influence Gooden in Congress, too. The Tribune reported that Andy Beal is also financing Gooden’s super PAC, showing that Pounds hasn’t been able to corral all of Hensarling’s donors.
Still, many other donors to Hensarling’s political machine have now helped Pounds fill her own coffers.
For instance, McIntyre and his wife maxed out to Pounds for both the primary and the runoff. So did ClubCorp’s Affeldt, and American Pawn’s Jones, along with his wife.
Some of Hensarling’s most generous corporate PAC backers, including ACE Cash Express, have donated to Pounds.
Giving PAC money to candidates in expensive races is one of the most effective ways for corporate special interests exert influence on politicians, getting them on the hook before they’re even in office.
She’s also benefited from the goodwill of Hensarling’s fellow GOP Financial Services Committee members. Representatives French Hill, Sean Duffy, Blaine Luetkemeyer, Mia Love and Keith Rothfus have all cut PAC checks to her campaign.
Tim Dunn, the Empower Texans funder, and his wife also maxed out soon after she qualified for the runoff. The Kaminskis, who hosted the Plano fundraiser for Taylor, maxed out with contributions of $8,100 each.
Hensarling donors aren’t only giving money directly to Pounds; they’re helping fund super PAC attacks on her opponent. In 2017, Harlan Crow, the Dallas conservative mega-donor, contributed $10,000 to the Committee to Protect PAC. He is a member of the founding committee for Club for Growth, a shadowy political operation known for throwing elbows on behalf of right-wing insurgents in GOP primaries. Club for Growth’s super PAC has flooded Texas GOP primaries with attack ads, including more than $450,000 attacking Gooden, Pounds’ runoff opponent, as a tax-hiking liberal, FEC records show.
The Tea Party Patriots Citizen Fund endorsed Pounds earlier this month, calling her “an outsider determined to drain the swamp in Washington.”
But it might be hard for Pounds to drain a swamp from whence she came.