Perry’s Merck Donations Raise Questions About Vaccine Mandate

Texas Governor Rick Perry ‘s decision to require pre-teen girls to be vaccinated against a virus that causes cervical cancer has ignited debate over whether the presidential hopeful used his office to do favors for political allies.

Perry, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, received at least $23,500 in campaign contributions from drug-maker Merck & Co., including $5,000 in 2006, the year before he ordered girls throughout the state to take a new Merck vaccine. The drug-maker also has donated about $500,000 to the Republican Governors Association, a group which Perry headed twice and has been among his most generous campaign donors.

One of Perry’s rivals for the presidential nomination, Representative Michele Bachmann, a Minnesota Republican, suggested during a debate two days ago that the governor issued the executive order to help a political donor that also employed a former senior aide as a lobbyist.

“The question is, is it about life or was it about millions of dollars, and potentially billions, for a drug company?” Bachmann asked during the debate in Tampa sponsored by CNN and Tea Party activists.

“If you’re saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended,” Perry responded, implying that was the extent of his support from the Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, company.

Perry spokesman Mark Miner suggested Bachmann was using the issue to get herself back into the headlines.

Misleading Facts

“There are people in this race who are trying to elevate their names and get into the news cycle based on false and misleading facts,” Miner said in a telephone interview.

In addition to the political donations, Perry’s ties to the company have come under scrutiny because he issued the vaccination mandate at a time when his former chief of staff was working for the Texas Lobby Group, which was retained by Merck.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccine Gardasil in June 2006. The following year, Perry issued an executive order that Texas girls be vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV) by age 12, and Gardasil was the only such drug on the market. Perry said his goal was saving lives by reducing cases of cervical cancer and other diseases.

“The governor erred on the side of life,” Miner said.

The state legislature didn’t agree with Perry and overturned his order. The mandate was never implemented, Miner said.

Successful Fundraiser

The Texas governor has been one of the most successful fund-raisers, bringing in more than $100 million during his decade in Austin and boosting the influence of the governors’ association while in the leadership of that group.

Pam Eisele, a Merck spokeswoman, said the firm “is strongly committed to decreasing the number of males and females impacted by HPV related diseases.”

In 2007, Eisele said, the company’s lobbying became a distraction in several states, including Texas. “So, in an effort to get the focus back to this important issue, Merck suspended its lobbying efforts on state school requirements,” she said.

About 12,000 women are diagnosed with and 4,000 die from cervical cancer each year, and most cases are caused by HPV, she said.

Perry’s own Merck donations date back to 2004, according to campaign finance disclosures compiled by the Helena, Montana-based National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Annual Contributions

The company donated about $500,000 to the RGA since 2003, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, including annual checks for $50,000 from 2005 through this year. Perry served as RGA vice chairman in 2007 and chairman in 2008 and for several months of this year.

The pharmaceutical industry has been a major contributor to the governor’s association, with several companies donating far more than Merck ever did. Pfizer Inc. contributed almost $1 million to the group in the 2008 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Eli Lilly & Co. wrote checks totaling more than $600,000 in the 2010 cycle.

In addition, Mike Toomey, a former Texas state House member who served as Perry’s chief of staff, became a lobbyist for the firm after leaving the governor’s office.

Toomey also is a founder of the pro-Perry Super PAC, Make Us Great Again, which is raising money to help get the Texas governor elected to the White House. Toomey didn’t respond to a telephone message seeking comment.

“This is just another shameful example showing Rick Perry putting his special interest friends ahead of the people of Texas,´ said Ty Matsdorf, a spokesman for American Bridge 21st Century, a pro-Democrat opposition research group. “He has built a pay-to-play network during his tenure that represents everything the American people believe is wrong with politics.”