Rick Perry Exports His Pay-to-Play Politics to Ukraine

Perry has talked about his aspirations for Ukraine to become “the Texas of Europe.” On the corporate cronyism front, he may just have succeeded.

Rick Perry speaks outside the Travis County courthouse in 2014.
Rick Perry speaks outside the Travis County courthouse in 2014. Patrick Michels

Perry has talked about his aspirations for Ukraine to become “the Texas of Europe.” On the corporate cronyism front, he may just have succeeded.

Rick Perry speaks outside the Travis County courthouse in 2014.
Rick Perry speaks outside the Travis County courthouse in 2014. Patrick Michels

It appears that Rick Perry exported his pay-to-play politics from the Texas governor’s mansion to the notoriously corrupt Ukrainian oil and gas sector, where, as President Donald Trump’s energy secretary, he has played an outsized role in opening up the industry to private investors.

As the Associated Press reported on Monday, two of Perry’s longtime political patrons won what could be an immensely profitable drilling contract on a sprawling patch of land owned by the Ukrainian government.

Per the AP, Perry traveled to Ukraine to attend the inauguration of President Volodymyr Zelensky in May. During the trip, Perry urged Zelensky to appoint all new members to the advisory board of the country’s massive state-owned natural gas company, Naftogaz, helpfully giving him a list of recommended energy advisors. At the top was Michael Bleyzer, a silver-maned Ukrainian-American who has made a name for himself in Houston as an eccentric oil and gas investor. He also happens to be a longtime benefactor of Perry’s political career.

In the meeting with Zelensky, the energy secretary emphasized his friendship with Bleyzer. A week later, Bleyzer and his business partner Alex Cranberg, also a longtime Perry backer, filed a bid to drill on a government-controlled plot. They were ultimately awarded the contract despite offering several million dollars less than the only other bidder.

Since 2017, Perry has played the role of international salesman for the American energy industry, particularly as an enthusiastic hawker of liquified natural gas, which he famously dubbed “freedom gas.” But as one of the Trump administration’s so-called “three amigos” who have led the United States’ diplomatic efforts in Ukraine, Perry is now embroiled in the impeachment inquiry into the president. He refused to comply with House Democrats’ subpoenas for documents related to his meetings with the Ukraine president and has declined to testify before committee members leading the impeachment investigation. Reports of his donors’ receiving a lucrative drilling contract in Ukraine now only heightens the scrutiny on Perry.

The revelations that Perry engaged in what looks to be a classic example of political cronyism should be unsurprising to those familiar with Governor Goodhair’s tenure. Over his 12 years running Texas, he developed a reputation as a brazen purveyor of pay-to-play politics, shamelessly installing his biggest political donors in powerful positions of public trust.

Rick Perry at a prayer rally in 2011.  Patrick Michels

Of the 4,000 jobs that he filled during his gubernatorial career, more than a quarter of them went to political donors—many of them woefully unqualified. From 2001 to 2010, those appointees gave Perry more than $17 million, about 20 percent of his total haul, according to Texans for Public Justice.

In turn, those donors were treated kindly by the Perry government. In 2011, Texas billionaire Harold Simmons, who had pumped $1.2 million into Perry’s coffers, got his radioactive waste dump permit greenlit by Perry’s appointees on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality despite objections from some staffers.

Perry also used massive economic development slush funds to shovel money back to his donors. In 2010, the Observer found that 20 of the 55 companies that received grant money from Perry’s Texas Enterprise Fund—a state warchest for corporate economic incentives—had contributed to either his campaign or the Republican Governors Association that he helmed. Those companies had a combined $2.2 million in political contributions and received a windfall of $175 million in taxpayer-financed incentives. More than $16 million from his new Emerging Technology Fund was given to Perry’s major donors. These programs have notoriously little accountability when it comes to job-creation metrics, often falling far short of original promises. One $30 million grant went to an energy group that never existed.

Bleyzer and Cranberg—currently embroiled in Perry’s latest scandal—have deep ties to Texas and Perry. In 2009, then-Governor Perry appointed Bleyzer to the advisory board for the Emerging Technology Fund, his new tax-incentive fund for startup ventures. The following year, Bleyzer cut Perry’s campaign a $30,000 check.

Cranberg—an energy investor, longtime GOP mega-donor, and University of Texas at Austin graduate—was appointed to his alma mater’s board of regents by Perry in 2011. That same year, Perry’s campaign paid $16,000 to Cranberg’s company for use of his private luxury jet. During his controversial tenure on the board of regents, Cranberg was seen as “the ringleader of a bloc of regents” who were influenced by outside interests that aimed to “stage an attack on academic research” and coordinate an ouster of UT’s president, the Texas Tribune reported in 2011. Perry’s former campaign manager Jeff Miller is now a lobbyist for Cranberg’s company and has visited Perry’s Energy Department at least a dozen times, according to the AP.

Perry’s office said he is only doing his job as a booster for American energy interests. “What he did not do is advocate for the business interests of any one individual or company,” Shaylyn Hynes, the Energy Department press secretary, told the AP. Bleyzer and Cranberg also denied any wrongdoing.

In hindsight, it was a small miracle that Perry made it this long without getting stuck in the swamp. He was almost able to slip out the back door while he was still in good standing as a member of the federal civil servantry. Last month, just as the Ukraine heat was turning up, he announced that he was resigning in December.

Helping two political pals secure a massive contract in Ukraine is another example of the pay-to-play approach that served Perry so well in Texas; this time, it’s at a global level. Perry has talked about his aspirations for Ukraine to become “the Texas of Europe.” On the corporate cronyism front, he may just have succeeded.

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Justin Miller is the politics reporter for the Observer. He previously covered politics and policy for The American Prospect in Washington, D.C., and has also written for The Intercept, The New Republic and In These Times. Follow him on Twitter or email him at [email protected].

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