Juan Carlos Llorca / AP

George P. Bush's campaign for Texas land commissioner awash in oil money

Office must litigate against oil and gas firms, but that hasn’t stopped industry titans from pouring $450,000 into race

When the latest member of the Bush family decided to foray into politics, he went with an understated entrance, attracting more headlines for his famous last name than for the relatively low-profile statewide position he was seeking.

George P. Bush — a son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, nephew of former President George W. Bush and grandson of former President George H.W. Bush — is expected to handily win his race for Texas land commissioner in November after easily shaking off a primary opponent in March.

If he does, he will be responsible for managing the state’s vast public lands and extracting royalty fees from the oil and gas companies that drill on them.

A distinguishing feature of George P. Bush’s quest for public office: a campaign war chest totaling $2.2 million — a significant portion of that money furnished by the same industry he will go on to regulate if he wins.

A glance at the names populating his campaign’s list of top-level donors reveals a who’s who of the state’s wealthiest oil and gas executives.

Anne Marion, heiress to the fortune of Fort Worth–based Burnett Oil Co., gave $50,000, according to reports filed with the Texas Ethics Commission and compiled by The Texas Tribune. Jan Rees Jones, wife of Trevor Jones, president and CEO of Dallas-based Chief Oil & Gas provided another $50,000. James Henry, a longtime veteran of the oil industry and chair of Henry Resources LLC, another oil and gas exploration firm, lent $40,000 to the effort. Syed Javaid Anwar, president of Midland Energy, kicked in $40,000.

In all, Al Jazeera tabulated that individuals tied to energy companies contributed at least $450,000 to Bush’s first political effort.  

Of course, the oil and gas industry’s formidable influence in state politics is nothing new, nor is it particularly surprising that the wealthiest political contributors in Texas amassed their fortunes in one of the state’s most robust and lucrative industries.

Still, some point out that being the land commissioner demands a willingness to have an adversarial relationship with energy companies — a task made much harder when their board members and CEOs have greased one’s ascent to public office. Bush’s campaign declined multiple requests for comment.

“One of the big roles for the land commissioner is chasing down unpaid royalties and making sure the appropriate fees are collected. It’s a position that demands independence and requires, in many cases, that the commissioner be a cop on the beat,” said Matt Lee Ashley, a senior fellow specializing in public lands and energy at the liberal Center for American Progress. “I think it’s always worth giving a close look at circumstances in which an elected official is getting campaign contributions from the industries that he or she is going to be overseeing.”

The Texas Land General Office, created in 1837, before the Republic of Texas joined the United States, manages 13 million acres of land that it leases to energy companies for oil and gas exploration through a competitive bidding process. Firms pay 20 to 25 percent in royalties, which go into a permanent public education fund. Since its inception, the land office has deposited $11 billion to finance K–12 and secondary schools.

Gary Mauro, a former four-term Texas land commissioner and a Democrat, said it was not unusual for the commissioner to have to dun oil and gas companies for the appropriate fees. Energy firms nationwide have become notorious for underreporting and underpaying royalties from exploration, stiffing both private and public landowners, although Texas has the advantage of having sophisticated auditing and enforcement mechanisms.

“There’s always fighting over it and whether there’s environmental damage to the land. While I was land commissioner, we audited the oil companies regularly, and we sued them regularly for underpaying royalties,” Mauro said. “Before I left office, I ended up suing everybody at least once. You can really be big friends with someone and still disagree on how much they owe you.”

In 2012 sitting land commissioner Jerry Patterson, now running for lieutenant governor of Texas, said he was in negotiations with two oil companies over underpayments that could equal over $100 million.

Mauro said that he did not see an inherent conflict in Texas land commissioner candidates’ taking campaign contributions from oil and gas companies and that ultimately, it came down to a candidate’s character and integrity.  

“I don’t see a problem with it. I’d prefer public financing, but I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon,” he said. “If you can’t say no to the oil and gas companies when they’re wrong and make them keep the land environmentally safe and make them pay every penny they owe to the schoolchildren of Texas, then you have no business being land commissioner.”

Environmentalists and campaign finance watchdogs, meanwhile, said the longstanding cozy relationship between the state’s elected officials and the oil and gas industry was to be scrutinized and has led to lax oversight of the industry.

“Basically anybody who regulates the industry gets a lot of money from the industry, and people just turn their head and look the other way,” said Sharon Wilson, who works on oil and gas issues in Texas for Earthworks, an environmental nonprofit. “It is the modus operandi. That’s the way it is. Of course, it’s not right.”

She added, nevertheless, that it would be difficult to successfully run for office in Texas without taking money from Big Oil and Gas.

Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a campaign finance advocacy group, pointed out that Bush’s donor Rolodex is nothing if not predictable, given that the Bush family made its first millions in oil. Bush founded St. Augustine, an investment firm specializing in oil and gas extractions.   

McDonald said that Texas’ notoriously loose campaign finance regulations are partly to blame for the state of affairs. There are no caps on contributions.

“Sometimes the things that are most scandalous are things that are legal, and we find that situation in Texas a lot,” he said.  “We do think it is a cause for concern, but it’s not unusual in the context of Texas politics.”

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