If Republican Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson loses her November election bid to Democratic challenger Kim Ogg, perhaps no one will be more disappointed than Houston car dealer mogul Don McGill. (Sing it: Toyota of Katy!)
That's because McGill has personally or through his car dealership donated a whopping $420,000 to Anderson's campaign since October 2014, with $310,000 flowing in since last fall, according to campaign finance records. The donations make him not only an outlier, but an extraordinary one at that.
McGill is Anderson's most generous donor by a landslide, having donated more than five times the second-most generous benefactor, oil magnate multi-millionaire Lester Smith, who with his wife Sue donated $75,000 total. McGill has donated more than six times the sum given by the executive chairman of Delta Airlines, Richard Anderson, who is Devon Anderson's late husband's best friend from college and a former Harris County prosecutor (Devon Anderson succeeded her husband, former DA Mike Anderson, after his death in 2013). That close rich friend, who just resigned from Delta on Thursday, has given $61,000 since July 2014.
Given Anderson has only dished out $242,847 in political expenditures since July 2015, records show, it appears McGill could have single-handedly fueled her 2016 campaign until this point.
The obvious question, then, is why on Earth McGill wants Anderson to win so badly. Is he just a really nice guy? Did he strike up a friendship with Anderson after selling her a lot of Toyotas? Does he just really love local politics the way some people really love playing poker? It's anybody's guess at this point: Multiple attempts to ask McGill ourselves through Don McGill Toyota's registered agent; multiple attorneys who have either represented McGill or his companies; and executive Don McGill Toyota employees including the general manager, marketing director and McGill's personal secretary were unsuccessful.
Allen Blakemore, Anderson's campaign spokesman, took our questions Thursday but did not get back to us with answers despite multiple follow-ups.
To be sure, this isn't the first time campaign donations bearing the name “McGill” have raised eyebrows.
While the relationship between Anderson and McGill is wholly unclear, a tangential one dates back to 2014, when several campaign donations McGill's family and colleagues made to a judge came under scrutiny. Just as Anderson took office, local lawyers called for a criminal bribery investigation.
At the time, McGill was going through a divorce, and the judge hearing the case, Bonnie Hellums, was set to retire while the divorce case was pending. Associate Judge Meca Walker, who worked beneath Hellums in the same court, was running to replace her — and out of the blue, four Don McGill Toyota employees and their wives donated $5,000 each to Walker's campaign for a total of $40,000 in a single day. Which is a gigantic donation for a judge, lawyers pointed out at the time.
Family law attorney Greg Enos blew the whistle, criticizing Walker for accepting donations from people obviously related to McGill while his divorce case was pending in her own court. Due to the conflict of interest and the fact that the money exceeded campaign contribution limits by $20,000 (married couples are limited to a total of $5,000 each to judges), Enos called the contributions illegal. As such, he called on Anderson to investigate the case in an article he wrote for his monthly newsletter. (Walker ultimately returned the $20,000 excess, saying she didn't “connect the dots” at first, and Hellums recused herself from the case, as the Houston Chronicle reported.)
Today, Enos said he does not recall if he made a more formal complaint to the district attorney's office. When we asked the DA's office if Anderson ever chose to open an investigation into McGill, spokesman Jeff McShan said the office “will not confirm nor deny there is or was an investigation.”
Investigation or not, Enos said he does not believe the shady contributions to Judge Walker have anything to do with McGill's massively generous gifts to Anderson today.
“I don't think he ever would have been that worried that those donations [to Walker] would have resulted in any sort of criminal investigation,” Enos said. “I don't think he had to give a penny to Devon Anderson for her not to do anything about it. So why else then?”
We talked to Andrew Wheat of the campaign-finance watchdog organization Texas Public Justice about why a millionaire car salesman would want to influence politics. Wheat said that at the state level, car dealers contribute huge amounts of money to lawmakers in order to maintain laws that give them a competitive edge over heavily-restricted electric car manufacturer Tesla, and prevent any consumers from selling or buying cars except through dealerships. According to a 2015 Texas Public Justice analysis, Don McGill Toyota contributed $202,500 to various lawmakers from 2013 through 2014. But Wheat, too, had no idea why a car dealer would want to give more than twice that amount to a local county prosecutor.
Other car dealers such as Norman Frede and Mac Haik contributed to Anderson's campaign — but only in drips and drabs adding up to no more than $7,000 and $7,500 respectively over three years.
“It's hard for the local district attorney to raise much money, because it's normally just lawyers who give a hoot, and they don't give in big chunks,” said Enos, who often follows local political campaign finance. “So for a businessman out in the community to give incredible money like that is just very, very unusual — but unusual doesn't necessarily mean there's something wrong with it. He may just be an extraordinarily civic-minded person. Or he may have been real pissed off at whoever she's running against.”
Kim Ogg spokesman Wayne Dolcefino said Ogg does not recall ever representing or prosecuting anyone in any way related to Don McGill, adding, “You'd have to be pretty angry at someone to give their opponent half a million dollars.”
Speaking of Ogg, billionaire George Soros, who has contributed to dozens of liberal candidates across the country including Hillary Clinton, just gave Ogg half a million dollars last week for a nice October surprise. Dolcefino says Ogg will be using the money for a huge TV advertisement campaign, and says at least two ads will smear Anderson for her treatment of the rape victim who was jailed for 28 days so prosecutors could ensure she would testify against her rapist — a controversy that has continued to be a major point of contention in the DA's race.
In a press release, Blakemore said of Soros's donation: “International financier, ultra-liberal billionaire George Soros has opened his checkbook to buy the District Attorney’s Office in Harris County, the third largest county in the nation.”
One may as well say the same thing of the random local car salesman — but that would only be speculation.
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