Public Retirement Funds and Universities Are Financing Empower Texans, a Far-Right Lobbying Group, New Report Reveals

Empower Texans, which receives most of its funding from oil and gas billionaire Tim Dunn, has put over $9 million into Texas electoral politics.

Photo illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept; Photos: Getty Images

For about a decade, a far-right political group financed by a handful of evangelical fracking billionaires has pumped millions of dollars into state legislative races across Texas in hopes of advancing its reactionary agenda. Empower Texans, which receives most of its funding from billionaire Tim Dunn, the founder and operating CEO of oil and gas company CrownQuest, is best known for bankrolling primary challenges against incumbent Republican lawmakers who are deemed too moderate.

The organization and its funders are also tied to broader, national right-wing movements, using their oil and gas fortunes to lead attacks on abortion rights, LGBTQ communities, and taxes and regulations, among other causes.

But universities, state pension funds, and cultural foundations across the country have been, perhaps unwittingly, financing the business empires of the billionaires behind Empower Texans, according to a new report from the watchdog group Public Accountability Initiative, or PAI.

The report, which was released on Wednesday, found that a number of public retirement funds and universities — including the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the University of Michigan, and Michigan State University — have tens of millions invested in Lime Rock Partners IV AF, which funds CrownRock, a joint venture between CrownQuest Operating and Lime Rock Partners. (Dunn is the CEO of CrownRock, as well.) The California Public Employees’ Retirement System declined to comment.

CrownRock was funded by a $750 million Lime Rock fund called Lime Rock Partners IV LP, the report explains. Then in 2018, Lime Rock raised $1.9 billion to finance the new fund, Lime Rock Partners IV AF. PAI cites a Bloomberg report that says “the ‘vast majority of the asset value’ in the new fund comes from its stake in CrownRock.”

Most of the investors in Lime Rock Partners IV AF aren’t yet known, Public Accountability Initiative notes, but many are likely the same ones that invested in the previous fund — Lime Rock Partners IV LP — including $43 million from the State Teachers Retirement System of Ohio, $40 million from the Colorado Public Employees’ Retirement Association, $30 million from the Denver Employees’ Retirement Plan, and $25 million from the Pennsylvania State Employees’ Retirement System.

Harvard College, the University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins University, Rice University, Reed College, the Rochester Institute of Technology, Pomona College, Carnegie Mellon University, Scripps College, DePaul University, and philanthropic foundations such as the Rockefeller Foundation, Knight Foundation, Pritzker Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York were also investors in the old fund.

“I know that concerns about investments among universities and pension funds are gaining more and more salience, you’ve been seeing in recent years discussions and sometimes divestments from things like the fossil fuel industry, the gun industry, private prisons,” said Derek Seidman, a co-author of the report. “It remains to be seen whether stakeholders in these funds would see fit to question whether these funds are being used in an ethical way.”

Michael Quinn Sullivan of Empower Texans speaks at a conservative grassroots rally for property tax relief and reform at the Texas Capitol on Tuesday. April 16, 2019

Michael Quinn Sullivan, CEO of Empower Texans, speaks at a conservative grassroots rally for property tax relief and reform at the Texas Capitol on April 16, 2019.

Photo: Juan Figueroa/The Texas Tribune

The Empower Texans political action committee alone, the report added, has “given over $9 million to more than 150 conservative politicians and PACs since its inception.” Seidman compared the group’s influence to a “Molotov cocktail” thrown at Texas politics. Billionaire brothers Dan and Farris Wilks, Kyle Stallings, Dick Saulsbury, and State Rep. Mayes Middleton, are among the biggest donors to the group.

Empower Texans has also supported efforts to restrict transgender individuals’ access to public bathrooms, sued to strip the Texas Ethics Commission of its regulatory power over campaigns, and fueled unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, one of the group’s top recipients, has raked in $857,075 from the organization. But despite the longtime alliance between Empower Texans and state lawmakers, the Republican factions have been turning against one other as they sit at the center of one of the biggest political scandals the state has seen in years.

On July 25, Empower Texans CEO Michael Quinn Sullivan claimed that Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen offered to give them media credentials, to enjoy increased access to the House floor, in exchange for unseating a list of 10 Republican lawmakers he had compiled. The allegations gained traction when Sullivan revealed he had secretly recorded the meeting, which has been confirmed by lawmakers who have listened to the tape.

Just last week, Sullivan and Patrick escalated the feud, publicly accusing each other of “destroying” the Republican Party. (Think of the meme depicting two Spider-Mans pointing at each other.)

“Whether it is @BetoORourke wanting to outright seize your firearms, or @DanPatrick trying to manage what you do with them, it is sadly evident too many politicians are willing to betray our Constitution in the name of their own political power,” Sullivan tweeted.

“You know my plan exempts family and friends, so apparently you are fine with selling your guns to total strangers who can’t pass a background check because they could be a violent felon or someone bent on mass violence,” Patrick replied. “BTW, release the tape. You are destroying our party.”

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