AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Texas governor Rick Perry tried to sideline a state commissioner who opposed expanding the scope of a nuclear-waste landfill owned by one of the governor's biggest political donors, Reuters has learned.
Bobby Gregory, owner of a wildlife ranch and landfill company south of Austin, had opposed a plan to let 36 states send nuclear waste to a 1,338-acre site in Andrews County.
On the other side of the issue was billionaire Harold Simmons and his company Waste Control Specialists LLC, which stood to gain millions of dollars from accepting out-of-state shipments. Simmons had donated over $1 million to Perry's gubernatorial campaigns.
A report in the Los Angeles Times in August examined the case of the Texas waste site and Perry's ties to Simmons, a conservative who funded the Swift Boat campaign that helped torpedo John Kerry's presidential bid.
Perry maintains his appointments are based on merit, and Simmons is inclined to help any conservative Republican, spokespeople for the two said.
In any case, the January vote by the eight-member Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission was key to the future profitability of the nuclear landfill.
Reuters has learned that late last year, after it became clear that the commission might block Waste Control's request to truck in waste from around the country, Perry's appointments chief, Teresa Spears, offered commissioner Gregory an alternative job -- a prestigious appointment as a regent of a state university.
Under Texas law, Gregory could not hold two state-appointed positions requiring Senate approval at the same time, and so taking the regent job would have required him to leave the waste commission.
Gary Newton, a lawyer for Gregory's company, Texas Disposal Systems, told Reuters his boss declined the offer. "There was a call from Ms. Spears. Bobby said they asked him if he was interested in this position. It was a Board of Regents position. He said 'No, I'm not interested in that type of appointment,' and declined," Newton said.
Gregory's term as commissioner ended on August 31 this year, so Perry can now replace him. The waste commission voted in January to allow imports, though it still has to examine and approve specific applications to import waste on a case-by-case basis.
Perry spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said: "Governor Perry's decisions are based solely on what's in the best interests of the people of Texas."
The news of Perry's intervention in the nuclear-waste issue comes as the governor is climbing the polls in the fight to take on President Barack Obama as the Republican candidate in the U.S. presidential election next year.
The Texan is running on a pro-jobs, pro-business platform. His political foes allege that he has granted favors to businesses owned by Perry donors (which wouldn't necessarily be improper under Texas campaign-finance rules). The governor's camp says he pushes the interests of all business in Texas.
FIGHT OVER IMPORTS
The WCS-operated site will store 2.3 million cubic feet of low-level nuclear waste, which is everything from cut up nuclear power plants, to radioactive detritus from hospitals and research labs -- but not spent nuclear fuel itself.
A key issue for the economics of the nuclear waste site was whether it would be allowed to handle waste imported from states other than Vermont. Texas already had a "compact" deal to handle Vermont's low-level waste.
In the latter part of 2010, Gregory was one of two people on the eight-member panel known to oppose allowing out of state imports. Two other members of the panel were Republican appointees from Vermont who favored the imports, but they were due to be replaced, presumably by Democratic appointees who would be in the opposition camp, early in 2011.
That could have swung the balance of the committee from 6-2 in favor to a 4-4 stalemate. Replacing Gregory would have given importation proponents the vote to carry the day.
After Gregory declined the job offer, the commission was called to vote on January 4, before the terms of the Vermont Republicans ended.
At a meeting that day, Gregory pleaded with his fellow commissioners to vote against importation.
"Without question in my mind this is too much, too soon, too fast, and I've added the caveat -- if at all," Gregory told the meeting. "It is beyond preposterous, it is beyond absurd," that the commission should vote without reading over 5,000 public comments, he said.
The panel voted 5-2 in favor of allowing out-of-state imports, and the Texas legislature sealed the importation allowance into law in May.
The Andrews County dump could begin accepting waste late in 2011 or early in 2012.
Perry's spokeswoman did not dispute the details of the regent offer, but would not comment on the donor's ties to Perry or the governor's intention to remove a waste specialist from a waste regulatory board in favor of overseeing a university. She broadly defended the process.
"Governor Perry makes appointments based on the qualifications of an individual and his or her ability to serve in Texans' best interests, nothing more," Frazier said. "As you may know, the project you mention was approved overwhelmingly by the Texas legislature, and has the support of the local community," she added.
Simmons' support of Perry is not unique and extends to Republican conservative candidates nationwide, said Chuck McDonald, spokesman for Waste Control Specialists, who dismissed any suggestion that Simmons' donations had gained him any favors from Perry or state regulators.
"The record is pretty clear: If you are a conservative Republican seeking office, Mr. Simmons is going to support you," McDonald said. "Every congressman who comes dragging through Texas, if he stops in (Simmons') office and he's got an "R" by his name, he's going to get money."
(Editing and additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington; Editing by Claudia Parsons and Michael Williams)