New watchdog report sheds doubt on GOP nominee’s promise

by | Oct 6, 2020 | Politics, Texas Elections

Jim Wright, the Republican candidate running for a seat on the Texas Railroad Commission, the influential state agency that regulates oil and gas, looks destined to break his latest pledge. 

In his primary running an underfunded campaign against Republican incumbent Ryan Sitton, Wright promised that if elected he would recuse himself from matters on the commission that deal with campaign contributors.

Wright went back on his pledge and requalified it after winning his primary. In July, the Austin-American Statesman reported that oil and gas money was flowing into his campaign and that Wright had a new pledge, that he would recuse himself, “only on matters that involved contributors who give money directly ahead of a commission vote,” according to the paper. 

Now, new research by Documented, a watchdog group that investigates dark money in politics, is casting further doubt on Wright’s promise to bring integrity to the railroad commission. 

Wright has received at least $497,422 from more than 75 oil and gas industry companies since March, making up more than three-fourths of his total fundraising, according to the latest Texas Ethics Commission filings reviewed by Documented. 

Unlike in federal elections where donors have a cap to what they can donate, in Texas donors can contribute an unlimited amount in statewide and legislative elections. 

As a result, $129,447 of Wright’s fundraising comes from the political action committees of major fossil fuel companies who have each donated thousands, including Apache, Phillips 66, Koch Industries, Haliburton, and Valero. 

A greater number comes from the executives and owners of the oil & gas companies who have each donated upwards of $10,000 to Wright. 

Kelly Mitchell, a senior analyst at Documented and former Climate Campaign Director for Greenpeace, told the Signal that while oil and gas donations to railroad commissioner candidates are not historically uncommon, these companies all have something at stake when dealing with the commission. 

“They all currently have some business in front of the commission because the role of the commission is so broad when it comes to regulating oil and gas,” Mitchell said. 

That includes permits to drill wells, waivers or violations surrounding the venting or flaring of natural gas, and the clean up of abandoned oil wells, Mitchell said. 

For example, Koch Pipeline Company LP, whose parent PAC donated $5,000 to Wright this cycle, was inspected and cited by the railroad commission in March for the unpermitted disposal of oil and gas waste at one of its facilities.

In August, Wright made headlines for another potential conflict of interest. His business, an oilfield waste services company in DeWitt County, received 50 violations from the Texas Railroad Commission for the unpermitted disposal of oil and gas wastes. Wright himself is also engaged in a slew of litigation with other companies that presents even more problems for his candidacy.

The latest fundraising totals for Wrights’ Democrat opponent, oil and gas attorney Chrysta Castañeda, were released Monday. Castañeda raised $310,709 in the third quarter, more than the $243,765 raised by Wright in the same period. 

A breakdown of Castañeda’s fundraising for the previous quarter by the nonprofit National Institute on Money in Politics found $2,875 of the $120,241 raised by her campaign came from individuals the oil & gas sector.

“Although I have not accepted any money from oil and gas industry PACs, I am happy to have support from those in the industry who want true change at the Railroad Commission,” Castañeda told the Signal in a statement. “We have more than 3,000 individual donors, which represents a broad spectrum of support. No single industry has an outsize impact on my fundraising.”

Photo: aluxum/Getty Images

fernando@texassignal.com | + posts

Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at fernando@texassignal.com

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