One evening this past October, I went prospecting for natural-gas man Trevor Rees-Jones at the posh Hilton Anatole in Dallas. He was there to receive the Robert S. Folsom Leadership Award, a philanthropic prize that in recent years has gone to the likes of Laura Bush and former Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman. Unlike these prominent Texans, Rees-Jones is not widely known outside his hometown. If the name sounds familiar, it's probably because he shares it with the British bodyguard who survived Princess Diana's fatal car crash. The Trevor Rees-Jones that I came to see is the billionaire founder of Dallas-based Chief Oil & Gas and perhaps the fastest-rising star in Republican big-money circles.
Photo: Scott Womack
The dinner's PR people had promised me tickets, then changed their minds and, with apologies, yanked them. So I called up my sister, a Dallas debutante of recent vintage, to help me crash the thing. As we strolled through the Hilton's cave-like lobby in cocktail attire, we saw a troop of young Boy Scouts milling about. One of them inquired about our destination and then helpfully directed us to the event's open bar. An Eagle Scout himself, Rees-Jones has donated millions of dollars to scouting causes.
A few days earlier, Rees-Jones' high school acquaintance, the renowned GOP bundler Jim Francis, had thrown him a party with guests that included George W. Bush. Now Francis' broad-shouldered son, Jim Jr., was holding forth in the lobby about a Lenin statue that once stood outside his burger joint. (Inscription: "America Won.") It was eventually sold on eBay to some guy in Arkansas. "Perfect!" someone exclaimed. "That's where it should be!"
We all laughed at the Clintons' expense. I then asked Francis if he thought Rees-Jones would go all in on the 2012 presidential race. "Oh, yeah!" he gushed before realizing he had no idea who I was. "Uh, I think a lot of the big political backers are waiting to see what happens," he added vaguely. "I think it will be a real interesting year."
I'd been trying to speak with Rees-Jones for more than a month. I'd even shown up at Chief's headquarters, but nobody would see me. Recognizing the CEO by his ruddy complexion and Regis Philbin hairstyle, I approached the bar where he stood flanked by a towering bodyguard with a Band-Aid on his neck. With slight trepidation, I introduced myself, asking if we might arrange a time to talk. His face reddened. "I've been advised of your agenda, so I don't think that's gonna be possible," Rees-Jones snapped in a West Texas drawl that belied his Ivy League education. His sideman moved closer and my sister and I turned heel, working our way past a tightening cordon of security.
A pity, for had we stuck around, we could have caught Karl Rove taking the stage beside a large model pump jack and oil derrick to do some prospecting of his own. Rees-Jones "is what servant leadership is all about," Rove said, throwing a bone to the Christians in attendance, though a society blogger covering the event emphasized his saltier extolments: George W. hadn't made it to the dinner, Rove explained, because he was angry that Rees-Jones always beats him when they go mountain biking together. "He rides the president's sorry ass into the ground every time."
Two days later, I'm in Towanda, Pennsylvania, a quaint little town where the main street is Main Street and stores display their names on hand-painted signs. In one of these shops works Crystal Stroud, a 29-year-old hairdresser. After work each day she used to drive through hills of elm and hemlock to her modest ranch house overlooking a red dairy barn, a cornfield, and a stream where her four-year-old boy liked to play. When she and her husband moved in four years ago, she decorated a kitchen wall with a quote from Corinthians: "Faith, Hope, Love: The greatest of these is Love." Now those words are the only indication that she used to live there.
This past March, Stroud's hair began falling out in clumps; her husband, a plumber, had to tear the shower drain apart twice to unclog it. She became jumpy and anxious and began having trouble breathing—even grocery shopping required rest breaks. A doctor prescribed her some anti-anxiety meds, and within a couple of days Stroud began to stutter. Her hands shook so badly she could no longer cut hair.
A few weeks earlier, Rees-Jones' firm had begun drilling a natural-gas well on a steep hill about 400 yards behind her home. Stroud, who typically drank four to six glasses of tap water a day, had promptly hired a testing firm to get the quality of her well water on record before Chief commenced fracking—a process that uses pressurized sand, water, and chemicals to smash up shale and release trapped gas.
Rees-Jones spent next to nothing on politics prior to 2008, but he has since emerged as one of the nation's leading GOP donors.
She didn't give the test any further thought until mid-April, when the lab called to say that her water was laced with elevated levels of barium. (It also contained dangerous amounts of flammable methane.) She hung up the phone and broke down crying.
Stroud spent the next week calling gas companies and state officials in search of answers. Finally, the state's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) suggested she contact Richard Adams, Chief's senior environmental adviser, who promised to come to her place the next day to discuss the problem and sample her well water. Instead, Adams sent an industry consultant to take a sample. "Two weeks went by and Chief was ignoring me and not calling me back," she recalls. "I realized pretty quick that this company was not going to be helpful and do the right thing." As it happens, Adams is a former DEP official who helped create the state's fracking regulations. (Chief has denied ignoring Stroud.)
The DEP said it would work with Chief to figure out what went wrong. So the couple stayed put, hiring a firm to truck in potable water. A DEP employee took more samples, and then, in July, the agency called to say that her well was likely contaminated long before Chief started drilling. Stroud, a lifelong Republican who had always been skeptical of government regulation, was aghast. "I probably called him every four-letter word in the book," she recalls. "I asked if they were insane, and who they were being paid off by."
Trevor Rees-Jones spent next to nothing on politics prior to 2008, but he has since emerged as one of the nation's leading GOP spenders. In Pennsylvania alone, he and his wife and employees donated $72,500 to pro-industry Republicans during the 2010 election cycle; all told, they gave at least $1.3 million to state and federal candidates and $400,000 to state-level political groups, including nearly $150,000 in political donations this fall.
All of this giving coincides with a growing public backlash against fracking in the shale regions of Appalachia and Texas. Rees-Jones' contributions have flowed to Republicans like Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who accuses the Obama administration of "trying to scare people" away from exploiting gas reserves; Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who wants to eliminate "unnecessary rules and regulations" limiting gas development; and Rep. David McKinley of West Virginia, an outspoken foe of the Environmental Protection Agency.
He also was among the top early contributors to dark-money outfits that sprang from the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision—groups that can raise and spend unlimited sums on political advertising. During the 2010 cycle, he gave $2 million to the Karl Rove-advised American Crossroads super-PAC, part of a galaxy of organizations with minimal levels of disclosure. Only four others gave more to outside political groups. (Read our roundup of other top Texas donors.)
Rees-Jones, whom Forbes pegs as the 88th-richest American, lives in an $11 million English-manor-style mansion with eight fireplaces, Tuscan pilasters, and security gates adorned with a coat of arms sporting roosters, a knight, swords, and fleurs-de-lis. One day last year, Perry joined him there at a daytime fundraiser for the Republican Governors Association. The same evening, Rees-Jones hosted an intimate dinner at the Dallas Petroleum Club with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett. "I'm riding at a pretty high altitude right now," he told the Dallas business lifestyle magazine D CEO.