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Texas This Week: One man is behind 98% of donations to Gov. Abbott's border wall fund

James Barragán, politics reporter for The Texas Tribune, and colleague Carla Astudillo found an out-of-state billionaire is bankrolling the public works project.

AUSTIN, Texas — In this week's edition of Texas This Week, reporters with The Texas Tribune looked into who is donating to Gov. Greg Abbott's border wall fundraiser and Texas lawmakers are making headway on redistricting.   

Three things to know in Texas politics

Texas Senate passes redistricting maps

This week lawmakers advanced bills on the most important issue on the special session call – redistricting. On Monday, the Texas Senate voted out its new map, which solidifies Republican control of the upper chamber for the next 10 years. Then on Friday, the Senate approved the new map outlining Texas's political districts in the U.S. House of Representatives, including two new seats for a total of 38, thanks to the state's growing population. In the House, the House Committee on Redistricting voted to send its map to the full chamber for a vote. That's set to happen on Tuesday. Critics of the maps say they don't reflect the growing number of minorities in the state because the maps don't add any minority opportunity districts, even though Hispanics are driving Texas's population growth. 

RELATED: Texas lawmakers advance redistricting legislation

Judge temporarily blocks 'heartbeat' abortion law

On Wednesday, a federal judge temporarily blocked Texas's new law banning abortions once fetal cardiac activity is detected, which is typically at six weeks gestation. The State immediately filed an appeal, but by Thursday some abortion clinics were offering the procedure again. Other clinics are holding off because the Texas Heartbeat Act includes a provision that allows people to retroactively sue anyone who performed an abortion or helped a woman get an abortion while the injunction is in place. On Friday, the State asked for an emergency stay to restore the law until the case is heard in court.


Gov. Abbott hosts Republican governors at the border

Gov. Greg Abbott hosted a coalition of Republican governors at the Texas-Mexico border on Wednesday. The lawmakers are calling on President Joe Biden to take action to increase border security, saying the president's current policies are causing chaos. Gov. Abbott also unveiled his own 10-point state plan to increase border security.

RELATED: Gov. Abbott and 10 other state governors met in South Texas to discuss border security

James Barragán discusses Texas border wall fundraiser

Part of Gov. Abbott's plan is to construct a wall along the Texas-Mexico border to finish the controversial project former President Donald Trump started. This past June, Abbott announced the project and launched a fundraising effort allowing anyone to donate to the project. At the time, he promised the donations and process would be transparent, but James Barragán, political reporter for The Texas Tribune, has found otherwise. 

Ashley Goudeau: Let's first talk about the decision by Gov. Greg Abbott to build a physical barrier between Texas and Mexico. When he first announced this, it really raised a lot of eyebrows.

James Barragán: "Yeah, I think it raised eyebrows, mostly because the, because immigration has been, is part of the federal government's purview. It's not really a state function to oversee immigration. And so when, when the governor announced in June that he was going to build a state-funded border wall that certainly raised a lot of alarms for a lot of people."

Goudeau: You know, I think the biggest hurdle and one of the biggest questions people had was funding, because the Biden administration reported former President Trump built 52 miles of barrier where none previously existed and it cost up to $46 million per mile. So what was and what is the plan to pay for Abbott's barrier?

Barragán: "Well, the plan is to crowdfund from private donations money for a border wall. The governor believes that there's enough Americans and even people who are not Americans who want to possibly give money to fund a state-funded border wall. So far, that has raised $54 million, with most of it coming from one source. But the State also has allocated nearly $1 billion to the Governor's Office, $750 million of which will go towards building a border wall."

Goudeau: So something you said really hinted on the whole reason why we're talking about this today, and it's the latest information that you uncovered, which is that one person is largely donating to the wall. Talk to us about the information you learned.

Barragán: "That's correct. It's me and my colleague, Carla Astudillo, at the Texas Tribune. We saw a huge increase in August into the donations that were given to the Border Wall Fund. Previously, for the first two months of the fund's existence, the fund had raised $1.25 million – not a whole lot of money in the grand scheme of things when you talk about how much it's going to take to build a border wall in the billions, multiple billions, of dollars. But then in August, we noticed that there was a huge jump to $19 million, and then by the end of the month, it was at $54 million. We tried to find answers from the Governor's Office as to where that money came from. The Governor's Office did not give us a response and asked us to file a records request. We finally received those records request last week and started looking through them, and we found that out of $54 million that have been donated, $53.1 million came from one donor, Timothy Mellon of Wyoming. He is the grandson of banking tycoon Andrew W. Mellon and he is responsible for 98% of the fund's donations."

Goudeau: A lot to unpack with what you just said. I want to start here. He doesn't necessarily have, or on the surface doesn't appear to have, ties to Texas. He does not live in Texas. So why do you think he is motivated to give such a generous donation towards Texas's efforts to build this wall?  

Barragán: "Yeah. So it's unclear what his ties are to Texas. We did not receive a response to our request for comment through multiple outlets trying to speak to Mr. Mellon. But he lives in Wyoming and is originally from Connecticut, so there's no clear tie there. The one clear tie that I think I can see is that he's a Donald Trump major donor, and of course, President Trump's, one of his major priorities was building a border wall. So it looks like he has an interest in border walls getting built, and he also has an interest in supporting Republicans. He's given a lot of money to PACs that support House GOP and senatorial GOP runs in Congress. Now, the other major reason why he might be wanting to give so much money is that he gave his money in stock, which means that he can avoid, through his donation to a charitable contribution to the State, he can avoid paying capital gains taxes on on that donation and he gets a nice tax deduction for that donation."

Goudeau: The other thing I want to talk about, though, is during his press conference back in June announcing the project to build this border wall, the governor told Texans that the donation process – who donates, how much they donate – is going to be transparent. But you didn't necessarily find that to be the case. It sounds like you had to go through a lot to get this information.

Barragán: "And that's been one of the most frustrating things out of this whole reporting process. Our job is to keep an eye on the money, you know, follow the money and where it goes, and the Governor's Office had said that they were going to be completely transparent. Early on, we found that that was not the case. We were seeing people using fake names to donate to the border wall and the Governor's Office not being able to track that. There was another department in the State that was tracking actual real payments to the wall. But in this specific case, they could have easily told us where that $53 million came from. I mean, it all came in one spike in August, and the Governor's Office certainly knew or could have known that and answered that within a day. Instead, it took a month's work of records requests for us to get an answer for the public about this individual, Timothy Mellon, giving $53 million to this fund."

Goudeau: And you know, James, really break down for us why this is important. Why does this matter and why fight so hard to get this information

Barragán: "Well, one, it's important because it's a state infrastructure project essentially, or a public works project, and there are rules set up for disclosure of who's donating to those funds and where that money's going to go. So we were really trying to test if they were going to follow those rules. Moreover, the governor had said himself that it was going to be completely transparent, and so far that has not proven to be the case that really made us work for it."

Click here to read the full article from The Texas Tribune on the border wall fundraiser.


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