Investigations Politics

Local Control? Texas Fracking Billionaires Say ‘Not So Fast’

Brie Shea

Why would Texas, a state renowned for its fierce defense of local rights, prohibit the good people of Denton—and any other municipalities—from banning hydraulic fracturing if that is what they choose to do? Look no further than Dan and Farris Wilks.

Last month, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill that would, at first blush, seem at odds with the state’s ethos of local control and individual rights.

Commonly referred to as the “Denton Fracking Ban,” the law should actually be called the Fracking-Ban Ban.

That’s because it forbids cities and towns from banning hydraulic fracturing, a technique used to extract methane gas from shale and other below-ground mineral deposits. Fracking has been linked to a number of environmental threats: dangerous chemicals flowing into rivers, poisoned drinking water, and dozens of earthquakes in states like Oklahoma, which had relatively few tremors before frackers Swiss-cheesed the place.

So why would Texas, a state renowned for its fierce defense of local rights, prohibit the good people of Denton—and any other municipality—from banning this dangerous practice if that is what they choose to do?

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The answer, it seems, has more to do with money than political consistency, according to reporting by Rewire. And the money is flowing from none other than Dan and Farris Wilks, two Texan brothers who have made billions from the fracking industry, and who stand to lose if uppity locals start banning fracking.

Rewire has identified more than $800,000 in 2014 Texas campaign contributions from the Wilks brothers and their wives based on public records. The extent of their contributions puts the Wilkses at the top of a list of donors from the oil and gas sector—an industry that has dominated Texas political life for decades. According to a recent report by Texans for Public Justice, business people from the oil and gas industry gave $1.7 million to all 31 Texas senators, and $3.8 million to 144 members of the house (out of 150 members.) This amounted to $56,000 per senator and $25,000 per representative. Farris and JoAnn Wilks were particularly generous, giving $239,500 in contributions, while Dan and Staci Wilks gave $75,000.

Every single legislator who received money from the Wilkses in 2014 voted “yes” for the bill. And Gov. Abbott, who signed it into law, took in over $30,000 from the brothers last year.

This, despite Abbott’s supposed view of how Texas does politics: “We don’t put our trust in the government, we put our trust in the people, and we will never forget that government is the servant of the people—not the other way around,” he said during his inauguration speech.

Jesse Coleman, a researcher for Greenpeace USA, says that the fracking industry’s push to outlaw local bans is deeply hypocritical.

“Here you have the crux of democracy in Denton, Texas, where people got together and voted on what they wanted,” Coleman told Rewire in a phone interview. “And now the same industry that is saying that the federal government can’t regulate them, is saying that, no, even on the local level, they can’t regulate them because they don’t want any regulation at all.”

Over the past few years the Wilks brothers have emerged as major backers of the far right, particularly Texas Tea Partiers.

On the surface, their philosophy seems to align with the Tea Party’s focus on individual freedom. Deeply religious, the Wilkses are heavily involved in their church, the Assembly of Yahweh (7th Day) in Texas, and have given to causes that claim to defend religious liberty. Between 2011 and 2013 Farris and his wife gave $1.5 million to the Liberty Counsel, a religious advocacy group associated with Liberty University known for filing lawsuits attacking abortion and LGBT rights. They are also big contributors to the American Family Association and Focus on the Family, two of the largest far right-wing religious groups in the country.

In sermons posted online, Farris Wilks—the elder of the brothers, who serves as a pastor at their church—has decried government interference in “individual liberty.”

In a sermon from November 2012, Farris said he was “bummed out” about President Obama’s re-election, and went on to exclaim that, “government is gaining ground and our liberty is being aborted.”

In another sermon, Farris said, “The more government you have, the less freedom you have.”

However, in truth, the Wilks family’s concept of freedom and liberty seems to extend only as far as the practice of their religion, and their freedom to expand a lucrative fracking empire against the will of other Texans who may disagree.

Rewire has documented their donations to groups who seek to strip away the constitutional right to determine whether to carry a pregnancy to term, as well as efforts to indoctrinate school children with extreme interpretations of Judeo-Christian teachings—including sexist, misogynistic, and anti-LGBTQ messages.

Clearly, all of these groups seek to inhibit individual freedom when it comes to choices that don’t align with the Wilks brothers’ narrow and fundamentalist worldviews.

So in reality, it should come as little surprise that the Wilkses are also willing to thwart local autonomy when it suits their interests, this time in the form of laws that prohibit local communities from enacting fracking bans.

The Denton Fracking Ban was just one of 11 related bills that were proposed during this legislative session in Texas.

Two other similar bills were authored by Republican Sen. Konni Burton (R-Colleyville), who received $100,000 in campaign contributions from the Wilkses during 2014, according to public records. The bills, SB 440 and SB 720, would have prohibited communities in Texas from banning hydraulic fracturing specifically. Ultimately, these bills fell to the wayside as support gathered around the Denton Fracking Ban, but the fact that they were authored and introduced speaks volumes about the push within the legislature to pass these kinds of laws.

The Denton Fracking Ban—HB 40—means that local municipalities in Texas will no longer be able to regulate oil and gas activity within their borders.

HB 40 preempts most regulation of oil and gas operations by local municipalities and all other political subdivisions, unless it meets four conditions, namely, that the ordinance:

  1. Must regulate only above ground activity;
  2. Must be “commercially reasonable”;
  3. Must not effectively prohibit an oil and gas operation from occurring; and
  4. Must not otherwise be preempted by another state or federal law.

While the main point of fracking is obviously to extract resources from below ground, the practice causes substantial environmental destruction above ground as enormous trucks transport huge quantities of wastewater and equipment to and from drilling sites.

The law defines “commercially reasonable” as:

a condition that permits a reasonably prudent operator to fully, effectively, and economically exploit, develop, produce, process, and transport oil and gas.

In other words, the law ensures that any restriction would not actually stop the “full” commercial exploitation of a possible fracking site.

The fracking-ban ban was introduced in direct response to a growing movement of local municipalities considering bans on fracking out of concerns about the health and environmental risks associated with drilling operations in their neighborhoods. Denton’s proposal was on their ballot in last November’s election, and easily passed with 59 percent of votes.

These kinds of measures caught the attention of newly minted Gov. Abbott. In a speech in early January, before he even officially took office, Abbott referred to fracking bans as part of an alarming trend that he called the “California-nization” of Texas.

“The truth is Texas is being California-ized and you may not even be noticing it,” he said in a speech to the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. “It’s being done at the city level with bag bans, fracking bans, tree cutting bans. We’re forming a patchwork quilt of bans and rules and regulations that is eroding the Texas model.”

It’s an interesting spin on laws that are written and supported by the very type of local communities that Texas usually glorifies, especially when it comes to insisting that “local control” is best for issues like managing jails and other services.

But not, apparently, when these local initiatives jeopardize the interests of the state’s deep-pocketed fracking barons.

It’s not just Texas that has moved to ban fracking bans. Similar legislation has been popping up across the country. The Florida House of Representatives passed a bill, HB 1205, that called for a study of the “potential hazards and risks that high-pressure well stimulation poses to surface water or groundwater resources” along with basic, limited regulation on high-pressure well stimulations. At the same time however, the bill contained language that could have been interpreted as a ban on the ability of local communities to adopt their own regulations on fracking, including banning the technique. The bill, and its companion SB 1468, ultimately died in the senate.

In Oklahoma at least eight bills were filed this session to prevent local municipalities from banning or regulating drilling operations. Last week, the governor signed SB 809, prohibiting counties and cities from banning hydraulic fracturing. The bill also prohibits local bans on wastewater disposal.

Greenpeace’s Coleman told Rewire that banning fracking bans are a key strategy of an industry that is increasingly worried by mounting organized local resistance to the technique.

“The [fracking] industry’s strategy is to silence criticism on a local level and to prevent recourse for local people,” Coleman said. “This is something they’re pursuing in all of the states where drilling is a big deal. They’re pursuing the strategy of taking away the rights of citizens of small towns from determining whether they want fracking.”

It should be noted that the Wilks brothers were not involved with any campaign contributions in Florida or Oklahoma, according to our review of public records.

But the brothers are associated with another type of assault on efforts to curtail fracking in a state where they do have significant land interests.

A U.S. Senator from Montana, Steven Daines, has taken the same fight in a different vehicle to Washington, D.C.

A member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Daines recently slammed the Department of Interior’s new regulations on hydraulic fracturing on federally owned lands, in a March 20 post on his Facebook page.

“States like Montana have successfully overseen hydraulic fracturing for years, but once again, the Obama administration seems more set on overregulating our energy industry than promoting the responsible development of our nation’s vast energy resources,” Daines wrote.

The new rule requires oil and gas companies to disclose the chemicals they use to conduct hydraulic fracturing operations, as well as regulating the storage of wastewater.

Daines is also a co-sponsor of U.S. Senate Bill 828, legislation seeking to clarify that a state has the sole authority to regulate hydraulic fracturing on federal land within that state’s boundaries. The bill is sitting in committee and is not expected to pass.

According to Federal Election Commission records, Farris and his wife, JoAnn, contributed $25,000 ($12,500 each) to Daines via the Daines Montana Victory Committee in February of this year.

The family has a profound interest in whether the federal government regulates fracking on public lands, and their interest is especially acute in Montana.

The Wilkses are currently the top landowners in Montana with 341,845 acres. Last year, the brothers were in negotiations with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for a controversial land exchange. Many hunters in the state were opposed to the deal and were worried they would lose access to hunting areas. Locals were also worried the land would be used for oil and gas exploration. The BLM ultimately took the deal off the table, much to the dismay of the Wilks family. For their part, the brothers insisted they wanted to preserve the area and use it for hunting.

Their company, Interstate Explorations, ranked 60 out of the top 150 Montana oil producers of 2014.

And these Texans have used their wealth to attempt to safeguard those interests. According to a report by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, the Wilks family gave money to 70 percent of Montana Republican legislators in 2012, for a total of $51,040.

It seems, however, that the family held back significantly with their 2014 contributions, only awarding 13 different candidates with the maximum limit of $170 each, according to a search of the Montana Campaign Electronic Reporting System.

While the amounts that the Wilkses have contributed to Texas and Montana legislatures in recent years would seem enormous to most people, they amount to a drop in the bucket for families who are worth a collective $2.8 billion, according to Forbes.

Dale Eisman, spokesman for Common Cause, a D.C.-based government watchdog, said the fracking industry has joined the ranks of other powerful, monied sectors in exerting their financial might to overwhelm democratic institutions.

“Whether it’s fracking or any other issue, to paraphrase Justice Breyer, when money calls the tune, the people aren’t heard,” Eisman told Rewire. “Big money players are able to exert themselves and get what they want as opposed to what the general public wants, and this is what we see on issue after issue.”

“This is the disease at the heart of our democracy right now,” he said.

Sharona Coutts contributed to this report.

Investigations Abortion

Anti-Choice Activists, Using Bogus Legal Threats, Trick Teens Into Signing Away Abortion Rights

Sharona Coutts

Providers throughout the country have told Rewire that a document produced by Life Dynamics has been used to deceive and intimidate both patients and providers by threatening them with legal action should they go through with obtaining or providing an abortion.

Last February, AJ, a single mother in Mississippi, found herself at the back of an abortion clinic in Memphis, Tennessee, where two police officers threatened to charge her with fetal homicide.

It was yet another unexpected turn in a week of surprising events for AJ, whose name we have agreed to conceal for the sake of her family’s privacy.

Days earlier, AJ had received the kind of news that most parents of teenagers hope never to hear. Her 17-year-old daughter, a student at Lake Cormorant High School, texted her to say she thought she was pregnant.

Mother and daughter discussed the realities of raising a baby as a single teen in a low-income household. Initially, AJ’s daughter said that she wanted to have an abortion, but she cried when they went to the clinic, so AJ took her home. After more conversations, the daughter again decided to have an abortion, and AJ scheduled an appointment at CHOICES, a clinic in Memphis, half-an-hour’s drive across the border from their home in Mississippi.

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As they sat in the clinic waiting room, her daughter was distracted, texting on her phone with a woman in Hernando, Mississippi, whom AJ did not know. The woman had—to AJ’s consternation—been trying to persuade AJ’s daughter not to have an abortion. Her messages kept flashing up on her daughter’s phone. It’s wrong to have an abortion. God is not going to forgive you for this.

“Her mind was solely made up with the procedure that the clinic was going to do,” AJ recalled, “but when she had someone up in her ear telling her, don’t do this—I think the lady did really get in her head.”

Now AJ found herself being stared down by two police, with nervous clinic staff telling her they were unable to provide her daughter’s abortion at that time.

“The police explained that someone had called them saying that my daughter was there unwilling to have the procedure done,” AJ recalled in an interview with Rewire. “So when the police talked to me, they said that if I had forced her to do it they were going to bring fetal homicide charges against me. So we left, and came home.”

AJ was shaken by the encounter, and it would take several weeks and significant legal wrangling before she could make sense of how events had spiraled from what should have been a simple medical appointment into a serious brush with the law.

With assistance from her lawyer, over the course of the next few days, AJ would learn that in addition to the anonymous phone calls that had been made to the clinic while she and her daughter waited for her procedure, people unknown to AJ had faxed her daughter’s personal information—her name, medical information, and even her social security number—to countless numbers of doctors, police, and other strangers in at least two states, without AJ’s knowledge or consent. She would discover that her daughter had been picked up from school and driven across the state border by a person that AJ did not know. And before the saga was resolved, AJ would even find out that an attorney she’d never heard of had purported to represent her daughter, and had sent threatening letters to the abortion clinic, directly interfering with her daughter’s medical treatment.

A Rewire investigation has found that at the center of the drama that unfolded in AJ’s life was a document produced by Life Dynamics, the prominent anti-choice group that is based in Denton, Texas, which receives the majority of its funding from the fracking billionaires Dan and Farris Wilks. The Wilks brothers are also the main backers of Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign.

The document is a bogus “notice” that tricks women into believing they have signed away their legal rights to receive an abortion. Providers throughout the country have told Rewire that this document has been used for years to deceive and intimidate both patients and providers by threatening them with legal action should they go through with obtaining or providing an abortion.

In AJ’s case, the tactic did not work. But her story is an illustration of the intrusive and dishonest techniques used by anti-choice activists to deprive women of their constitutional rights. Abortion providers familiar with the document worry that, for each of the women who ultimately receive the care they desire, countless more may be too intimidated to try.

School Employees Introduce Student to Anti-Choice Activist

The involvement of anti-choice activists in AJ’s daughter’s life began with an innocent conversation between the daughter and a teacher at her school in early February 2015. Rewire was not able to speak directly with the daughter, but confirmed many of the details of AJ’s account with documentation provided by AJ’s attorney, Latrice Westbrooks. Rebecca Terrell, the executive director at CHOICES in Tennessee, also confirmed that the incident involving the police occurred in February last year.

When the daughter confided to her teacher that she was pregnant, the teacher informed another school staff member, and that staffer then contacted a third woman—a stranger to AJ’s daughter, and not a member of school staff—who arranged to meet the girl after school. To this day, AJ has been unable to learn this woman’s identity.

On February 19, the unknown woman drove AJ’s daughter—a minor—across state lines to Millington, Tennessee, where they visited a clinic called Confidential Care for Women, which is a crisis pregnancy center.

Crisis pregnancy centers have a long track record of providing false information to women. Their names and marketing materials are designed to trick the public into thinking that these centers provide abortion when, in reality, they are run by anti-choice groups who deliberately mislead women, and stall for time, in the hopes of diverting them from accessing abortion care. These centers have been the focus of numerous investigations by congressional committees, cities, and independent investigators who have all caught them lying to women about the risks of abortion procedures, as well as misleading them on the types of services crisis pregnancy centers actually provide.

While AJ’s daughter was at Confidential Care for Women, staff performed an ultrasound and had her sign a document titled, “Patient Notice of Intent.”

As AJ would eventually discover, it was that document that created astonishing difficulties in attempting to secure her daughter’s medical care.

The notice is a boilerplate document drafted in small-print, ersatz legalese.

It states:

I have decided to continue my pregnancy to term. However, I am being subjected to coercion by others that is meant to compel me to terminate my pregnancy against my will.

The document then says that if the person who signed it is “brought” to a health-care facility to obtain an abortion, their presence would be a result of “threats, intimidation, force or threats of force.” It also threatens civil and criminal action against “all participating members of the healthcare facility’s medical staff and non-medical support staff” for a laundry list of 15 offenses, including wrongful death, sexual assault, child abuse, and fetal homicide.

The form lists Sheila Williams as the “contact person at the pregnancy center.” In a telephone interview with Rewire, Williams, who said she is the “client services person” at Confidential Care for Women, confirmed that her center continues to have patients sign these notices of intent, but declined to say why, other than that they are “self-explanatory.” Williams repeatedly sought to learn the identity of the patient who was the subject of our call; we declined her requests.

Crucially, the document claims “it is probable that a person or persons whose objective is to prevent me from either withholding or withdrawing my consent for an abortion will accompany me to this facility.”

That last claim appears to be what prompted police to threaten AJ with charges of fetal homicide if her daughter obtained an abortion.

(Read a redacted copy of the document here.) 

“They said they would bring legal actions against me,” AJ told Rewire. “They were saying there’s nothing I can do because if she’s a teenager and she doesn’t want to have an abortion, it’s wrong for me to force her to have it. And I wasn’t forcing her, I was just letting her know what it’s really going to be like to have a baby.”

Deceptive Form Produced by Group Tied to Fracking Billionaires

The form is copyrighted to Life Dynamics, a Texas-based group dedicated to ending legalized abortion in the United States. Life Dynamics is known for its ongoing anti-choice activities. Over the years, the organization has sent DVDs to thousands of lawyers across the country, urging them to sue abortion providers. And through its “Spies for Life” program, it seeks to enlist the public as spies on abortion clinics, and unsubtly encourages activists to trawl through abortion providers’ trash.

According to the most recent available public tax filings, between 2011 and 2013, Life Dynamics received the majority of its funding from Dan and Farris Wilks—the Texas fracking billionaires—via the Thirteen Foundation, one of the vehicles they use to make charitable contributions. While the brothers have scattered their wealth throughout the fundamentalist Christian world, the other major current beneficiary of their largesse is the presidential campaign of Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.

A spokesperson for Life Dynamics declined to answer our questions for this story.

Lawyers told Rewire that the type of document signed by AJ’s daughter would not have any legal force, especially when signed by a minor.

But that hasn’t stopped anti-choice groups from using the documents, according to multiple providers from different regions of the country, who said they are familiar with these phony notices.

Vicki Saporta, president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, told Rewire that providers all across the country have contacted her group about these forms. She ticked off states in which clinics had shared them with her recently: Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, and Maryland to name a few. Terrell from CHOICES in Memphis told Rewire that her clinic receives multiple such forms every year, and Lori Williams, clinic director at Little Rock Family Planning Services in Arkansas, said her clinic also regularly receives these forms.

The forms are frequently given to minors, who later report that they were coerced into signing them by people such as their boyfriend’s parents, who oppose abortion for their own religious or political reasons.

“It’s just another tactic to intimidate and coerce women into not choosing to have an abortion—tricking women into thinking they have signed this and discouraging them from going through with their initial decision and inclination,” Saporta said.

Saporta and multiple providers told Rewire that the tactic frequently fails, as long as a girl or woman makes it to a clinic. Staff are well trained when it comes to the informed consent process, and support their patients to make their own decisions, whether or not that results in an abortion. In this particular case, CHOICES faced the unusual situation that police were present while a patient was seeking care, and according to Terrell, there was confusion as to who had called the police.

What worries providers are the girls and women who never come to the clinic, believing they have signed their rights away.

“The ones who do come and say that they do want to obtain an abortion, the clinics do their own informed consent process and take the time to ensure that the woman is not being in any way coerced,” Saporta said. “You don’t know about how many women don’t come to the clinic to attempt to obtain care.”

Single Mom Faces More Legal Threats From Anti-Choice Activists

After returning home from that visit to the clinic, AJ and her daughter spent the next few days discussing her daughter’s options. At one point, her daughter appeared to vacillate, saying she might want to continue her pregnancy. AJ talked with her about what that would entail—what it would mean for her daughter’s social life, for her studies, and for her future. She also explained the financial reality of having a baby: AJ was already struggling to support herself and her daughter by working 64 hours per week between two jobs as a card dealer at local casinos.

Ultimately, the 17-year-old decided that she wanted to terminate her pregnancy, and AJ made another appointment at CHOICES, for February 21, 2015.

But when they arrived, CHOICES staff again told AJ they could not perform the abortion. Minutes before, the clinic had received a threatening legal notice from an attorney in Tupelo, Mississippi, named Stephen M. Crampton, who claimed to be representing AJ’s daughter.

“Be advised that this office represents [REDACTED], age 17,” the fax read. “Her mother is transporting her to your clinic as I write.” Crampton purported to put the clinic on “legal notice that any procedure you administer would be against [REDACTED’s] wishes and her constitutional right to choose, and you will face legal consequences if you choose to ignore her stated choice.” (Emphasis in original.)

Crampton named Cathy Waterbury as the employee at Confidential Care who had faxed through the notice of intent to CHOICES. Waterbury has since left Confidential Care, according to Williams, but she is listed in federal tax filings as the chief officer of a Tennessee nonprofit, Heart to Heart, which describes its mission as “abortion alternatives.” Heart to Heart is based in Millington, Tennessee—the same town listed on the notice as Confidential Care’s address. The documents also list the same phone number for both Confidential Care and Heart to Heart. We attempted to contact Waterbury through publicly listed phone numbers, but were unable to reach her.

AJ had never heard of Williams, Crampton, or Waterbury. This brought to five the total of unknown adults who had interfered with AJ’s daughter’s health decisions without AJ’s knowledge, in addition to the two school staffers. AJ would later learn that Crampton had been in contact with her daughter while she was wrestling with her decision about whether to continue her pregnancy.

The involvement of an unknown attorney in her child’s health decisions would be troubling enough, but Crampton is not just any neutral lawyer, seeking to do his client’s bidding. Based on his online profiles, Crampton is in fact special counsel to the Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based nonprofit law firm that represents anti-choice extremists, including David Daleiden, the activist who has recently been indicted by a Texas grand jury for his role in creating the deceptive attack videos against Planned Parenthood last summer. Neither Crampton nor the Thomas More Society responded to our requests for comment.

For all the strangers that AJ could identify who had been given sensitive information about her daughter’s health, the document that Confidential Care had AJ’s daughter sign indicated that—contrary to what their name would suggest— they could have disseminated it to an almost infinite number of third parties.

In addition to the legal threats it contained, the notice of intent also included a section that permitted Confidential Care to “immediately forward copies of this document to the following”:

  1. Every abortion clinic or other abortion provider to which I might be taken;

  2. Every law enforcement entity (police department, sheriff’s department, district attorney’s office, etc.) with jurisdiction where I might reside and those with jurisdiction where the abortion might be performed; and

  3. My legal counsel and/or the legal counsel representing the Pregnancy Center.

AJ learned that Confidential Care had already faxed a copy of the notice to CHOICES, apparently on the same day that her daughter had visited Confidential Care. AJ does not know who else received a copy.

That was particularly worrisome because the document did not just inform all recipients of AJ’s daughter’s pregnancy, but it also contained the girl’s full name, her full address, and even her date of birth and her social security number.

Williams, of Confidential Care, was unapologetic about distributing this private information about a minor to third parties. “I am fully aware of what we sent out,” she told Rewire.

When pressed on the fact that this case involved a minor—who was not legally competent to sign such a document—Williams pointed to language in the document that asserts that the minor gives permission to the pregnancy center to “provide this document to every city, county or state social service agency responsible for the protection of underage children with jurisdiction where I reside and those with jurisdiction where the abortion might be performed.”

Williams then asked again for the patient’s name, saying, “I have concerns for patient confidentiality.”

Williams declined to answer questions about whether she and her center are bound by federal patient privacy laws. She said that someone else from her organization would answer those questions, but we never heard back from any other Confidential Care representative.

Abortion providers say that when they receive these notices, they almost always contain this level of personal information—a practice that disturbs Vicki Saporta of the National Abortion Federation.

“It’s particularly unconscionable that they indiscriminately send out patient information,” she said. “If she had concerns about patient confidentiality then she would not be having the patient sign the form to begin with and sending it all over town in violation of the patient’s confidentiality.”

At this point, AJ decided she needed a lawyer. She contacted Latrice Westbrooks, who knew she had to act fast because AJ’s daughter’s pregnancy was approaching the end of the first trimester, and mother and daughter were concerned that it might soon become more difficult for her daughter to obtain an abortion at a local clinic.

Despite multiple phone calls, Crampton never replied to Westbrooks. Ultimately, she had to draw up legal paperwork to prove to the clinic that Crampton was not AJ’s daughter’s legal representative, and that the document the girl had signed was not legally binding. As soon as the clinic was satisfied that it was legally able to do so, staff provided AJ’s daughter with her abortion.

Westbrooks says the clinic’s cautious response was understandable, given the threats they had received and the general atmosphere of intimidation currently surrounding abortion care, especially in the South. However, she says that the tactics used by the various anti-choice activists are alarming.

“My main concern here is that a minor was taken advantage of, and that school officials took the decision out of the hands of the parent and guardian and took it upon themselves to make a health-care decision on their behalf,” Westbrooks told Rewire. “It’s important for people to know that they have a choice to change their mind—whether it’s to keep their child or terminate their pregnancy—and not to let someone force them into making any kind of health-care decision.”

Westbrooks said that her client does not currently plan to take legal action against the school; neither the school nor the district replied to Rewire’s requests for comment.

While AJ’s daughter eventually obtained the care she wanted, AJ says the situation took a toll on her. Throughout the course of less than a month, AJ found herself threatened by police, and ensnared in a web of anonymous strangers who sought to impose their own ideological views on her daughter’s life.

“I’m truly a strong person,” she told Rewire, “but that really got the best of me.”

Analysis Politics

The DeVos Family: Promoting Conservative Religious Values Through Political Donations

Ally Boguhn

The DeVos family has thrown millions of dollars toward financing Senate races across the country involving vulnerable Republicans who support their issues; funding crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) that lie to patients about pregnancy, abortion, and other health concerns; and lining up support for so-called religious liberties measures.

When you think about “money in politics,” the Kochs, the Mercers, the Coorses, or the Wilksesall of whom have made names for themselves funding conservative causes across the country—may come to mind.

You may be less likely to think about the DeVos family: religious conservatives in Michigan who for decades have helped funnel money into influential political battles, including local races, ballot measures, presidential elections, and key congressional contests in other states.

The DeVos family has thrown millions of dollars behind the causes and politicians they support. That means financing Senate races across the country involving vulnerable Republicans who support their issues; funding crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) that lie to patients about abortion and other health concerns; fighting against marriage equality; and lining up support for so-called religious liberties measures.

In a January report highlighting donors “you’ve never heard of” who stand to make the biggest impact on this year’s upcoming election, the Hill’s Jonathan Swan and Harper Neidig featured the DeVoses’ almost unparalleled influence in conservative politics.

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“Over the course of 2015, no family in conservative politics donated more hard dollars to political campaigns than the DeVoses,” reported Swan and Neidig. Richard DeVos, the family’s billionaire patriarch, built his fortune as a co-founder of direct-selling franchise Amway; he is also the owner of the NBA’s Orlando Magic team. “An analysis by The Hill shows that members of the DeVos family donated $964,000 in hard dollars to Senate and House campaigns and to Republican Party committees at both the state and national level. This spending easily surpasses the $97,000 in hard dollars from the Koch family and $72,000 from the Coorses—two other major conservative donor families.”

The DeVoses’ commitment to the Republican Party runs deep. Among their numerous political ties, Richard DeVos acted as the finance chair of the Republican National Committee (RNC) in the 1980s; Betsy DeVos, who is married to Richard’s son Dick DeVos, was the chair of the Michigan Republican Party and finance chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee; and her husband Dick took on a self-funded failed gubernatorial bid in Michigan in 2006 that cost the family more than $35 million.

In a phone interview with Rewire, Denise Roth Barber, managing director of the nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics, explained that for families like the DeVoses, donations are often made to foster eventual relationships with politicians. “In general we all understand that contributions are made as an investment and that they’re hoping at the very least to have access to the candidates once they win so that they can discuss policies,” Roth Barber explained.

A search of the National Institute on Money in State Politics’ database, FollowTheMoney.org, reveals that the DeVos family has given $52.5 million to candidates and committees across the country since 2000, according to state data. However, Roth Barber noted that the family’s influence could extend beyond these reported direct donations. “There are so many other ways to influence and to … spend money politically besides direct donations to ballot measures, campaigns, and party committees …. So when we are looking at this we know that this is just one portion of their money. It’s not everything.”

In her book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, Jane Mayer explained that one of the ways the DeVoses have pushed their political influence beyond direct donations has been by putting hundreds of millions of dollars behind building a conservative movement.

“Starting in 1970, they began to direct at least $200 million into virtually every branch of the New Right’s infrastructure, from think tanks like the Heritage Foundation to academic organizations such as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which funded conservative publications on college campuses,” Mayer wrote.  

In a 1997 guest column for Capitol Hill publication Roll Call denouncing campaign finance regulations, Betsy DeVos admitted outright that she and her family used their money in order to buy influence.

“I know a little something about soft money, as my family is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican Party,” wrote DeVos, according to Mayer. “I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American values.”

Much of the DeVos family’s donations have gone toward helping to fund the politicians and the conservative organizations behind anti-choice and other conservative measures in their home state of Michigan. “With donations to state legislators and Gov. Rick Snyder, the DeVos family—via the Michigan Family Forum and Michigan Right to Life, which they help to fund—were able to pass Michigan’s ‘rape insurance’ law, requiring women to buy a separate insurance rider for abortion to be covered, even in cases of rape and incest,” explained NARAL Pro-Choice America in a 2015 memo, referring to the 2013 Abortion Insurance Opt-Out Act.

The family did indeed play a role in helping to elect Michigan Gov. Snyder, who has signed additional pieces of anti-abortion legislation, such as a 2012 anti-choice “super-bill” banning telemedicine abortion in the state and enacting what advocates called “coercion screenings” on those seeking the procedure. Snyder, more recently, has come under fire for mishandling the water crisis in Flint. Snyder was re-elected after “significant national involvement in the Michigan gubernatorial campaign” from the Republican Governors Association (RGA), according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, which also found that the DeVos family was among Michigan’s top donors to the RGA during the 2014 election cycle. The DeVoses gave another $122,430 directly to Rick Snyder for Governor.

Their donations have also helped other local anti-choice politicians get elected, including state Sen. Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba), who has sponsored measures such as “Choose Life” license plate legislation to help fund CPCs and who introduced a ban on a common abortion procedure this January, and state Sen. Darwin Booher (R-Evart), who has co-sponsored laws targeting Michigan abortion providers.

Although in recent years they seem to have largely flown under the radar outside of their home state, the DeVoses’ penchant for funding ultra-conservative causes and politicians hasn’t gone completely unnoticed. In 2012, members of the LGBTQ community called for a boycott of the family’s Amway company and its affiliates after news broke that the DeVoses had donated $500,000 to anti-marriage equality organization National Organization for Marriage (NOM).

An analysis released in February 2015 by Common Cause, a nonpartisan watchdog organization, named the DeVos family as one of the “major funders of the Religious Right,” finding that since 1998, the family gave more than $6.7 million to Focus on the Family (FoF)​—the same group that spent nearly $3 million in 2010 to fund an anti-abortion ad featuring football player and known conservative poster boy Tim Tebow during the Super Bowl​—through two of their family foundations. FoF spends millions each year to promote its anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ extremism, including promoting the passage of religious freedom restoration acts (RFRA).

NARAL similarly featured the DeVoses in its memo outlining the families that fund the “March for Life” and the larger anti-choice movement. NARAL’s research found that the DeVoses have spent millions of dollars funding right-wing organizations through direct donations as well as donations to “pass-through organizations” that help funnel money to conservative groups, think tanks, and other organizations, largely without the oversight of the Federal Election Commission (FEC)​. The DeVoses’ family charity gave $6.5 million total in 2009, 2010, and 2012 to DonorsTrust, one of these “pass-through” organizations that in turn has donated to FoF and other conservative groups such as Americans United for Life, which provides model anti-choice legislation for states looking to restrict access to reproductive health care.

In 2011, the DeVos family gave $3 million to the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the Koch-backed organization, through an unrestricted grant. As Adele Stan reported for Rewire, the Americans for Prosperity advocacy arm spent millions of dollars in the 2012 elections—and nearly all of that money was spent supporting anti-choice candidates.

Further analysis of the family’s giving shows that their opposition to abortion also prompted the DeVoses to give millions to conservative causes such as CPCs and other anti-choice organizations through their family foundations.

Between 1998 and 2013, two of the family’s charitable organizations—the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation and the DeVos Urban Leadership Initiative (formerly the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation)—have given more than $1.1 million in unrestricted grants to a single CPC in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the Pregnancy Resource Center, which bills itself as a “life-affirming” clinic.

In these same years, the organizations donated heavily to the Right to Life Michigan Educational Fund, giving the group over $1.6 million in unrestricted grants. Another $15,000 was given to Baptists for Life.

The family is also a big supporter of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank home to the Richard and Helen DeVos Center on Religion and Civil Society, established in 2004 after a $1.8 million grant from the DeVoses. The center was created “as a way to improve public discourse on these issues and to integrate serious reflection on the role of family, religion, and civil society across policy areas,” according to Heritage’s website. Its analysts have taken hardline stances advocating for Planned Parenthood to be defunded, opposing marriage equality, and arguing in favor of RFRA-related protections.

Perhaps just as significant have been the family’s donations during elections, particularly in recent years. During the 2012 election alone, 15 members of the family donated to primarily conservative political candidates, totaling over $1.4 million in funding. The family’s Amway company and its parent company, Alticor Inc., contributed another $1.07 million in that election cycle to candidates, PACs, committees, and outside spending groups.

The next year, after their home state of Michigan instated a new law doubling campaign contribution limits, nine members of the family gave a total of $700,000 to the state house and senate Republican caucuses in just two days. Between January 1, 2013 and December 31, 2014, the DeVos family gave $2.3 million to the Michigan Republican Party.

Analysis of the DeVoses’ spending in the 2016 campaign cycle conducted by Rewire using Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets.org database found that many members of the family have already donated the maximum amounts allowable by law under the FEC’s contribution limits, the majority going to vulnerable candidates across the country whose Senate seats are key to maintaining a Republican majority.

The FEC allows individual contribution limits of no more than $2,700 per person per election, and at least eight members of the DeVos family contributed the maximum allowable amount to Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), Sen. Richard Burr (R-SC), Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL).

For many of these vulnerable incumbents, their anti-choice positions are a key point in their conservative platforms. In December 2015 the Associated Press predicted that abortion would play a major role in Senate races in many of the same states the DeVoses are funding conservative candidates, including New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ohio.

This comes as no surprise, given that several of these same Republicans have a long history of pushing their extreme anti-choice views. Sen. Portman, who is running for re-election in Ohio, for example, touts on his campaign website his 100 percent rating from anti-choice group National Right to Life, his 77-0 voting record in favor of anti-choice measures, and his record co-sponsoring medically unsubstantiated fetal pain legislation in the Senate.

New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, meanwhile, has championed so-called religious liberties at the expense of reproductive health care, seemingly a pet issue of the DeVoses given that Amway/Alticor has lobbied for related measures. Ayotte lauded the Supreme Court’s decision in Hobby Lobby allowing some employers to deny their staff insurance coverage for contraceptives with which they disagree on religious grounds, writing in a statement that “Americans shouldn’t be forced to comply with government mandates that violate core principles of their faith.” Ayotte also co-sponsored the Blunt Amendment, which would have limited the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate by allowing employers and insurers to deny contraceptive coverage and other care they disagreed with for “moral reasons.” 

At least nine members of the family have also given $10,000 (the largest an individual is allowed to donate to to a state or local party committee) directly to the Republican Party of Michigan this election cycle. The RNC is another major recipient of DeVos dollars, receiving over $1.1 million from the family in 2015 and maxing out contributions for many of the family members. The Republican Senatorial Committee received maximum donations of $33,400 from nine members of the family, totaling over $300,000.

Thus far, the family seems to be hedging its bets on which presidential candidate to back, and donations of various sizes have been made toward several Republicans who have already dropped out of the race, including Carly Fiorina, Marco Rubio, and Jeb Bush. John Kasich has also received a handful of direct donations.

With hundreds of thousands of dollars already directly invested in conservative politicians nationwide, the DeVoses’ financial contributions in 2016 mean the family could be buying up access to elected officials across the country. Given their stringent devotion to the causes pushed by the religious right, that influence could be a cause for concern.