Texas Gov. Rick Perry bristled at accusations during Monday’s GOP debate that he had done the bidding of a corporate donor by ordering schoolgirls to use a new vaccine.
“The company was Merck, and it was a $5,000 contribution that I had received from them,” Perry said. “I raised about $30 million. And if you’re saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended.”
But campaign disclosure records portray a much deeper financial connection with Merck than Perry’s remarks would suggest.
Perry’s gubernatorial campaign, for example, received nearly $30,000 from the drugmaker since 2000, most of it prior to his decision in 2007 to order young girls to obtain Merck’s vaccine against the human papillomavirus, or HPV.
Merck has also given more than $355,000 in donations to the Republican Governors Association since 2006, which was the year that Perry began to play a prominent role in the Washington-based group, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
Perry served as chairman of the RGA in 2008 and again this year until he decided to run for president. The group also ranks among Perry’s biggest donors, giving the Texas governor’s campaign at least $4 million over the past five years, according to Texans for Public Justice.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), one of Perry’s rivals for the GOP nomination, said on NBC’s “Today” show Tuesday that “it’s very clear that crony capitalism could have likely been the cause” of Perry’s decision to issue the vaccine order, which was eventually blocked by the Texas legislature.
A Perry spokesman did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday morning.
The HPV vaccine has become a major headache for Perry as he attempts to become the Republican nominee for the White House, complicating his generally warm relations with evangelical and social conservatives who play a pivotal role in the party.
Perry surprised religious groups in 2007 when he became the first governor in the country to order use of the vaccine against HPV, a common sexually transmitted infection that causes genital warts and, in women, can lead to cervical cancer. Many social conservatives object to the vaccine because they argue that it suggests to young girls that having sex is okay.
One of Perry’s closest confidantes, former chief of staff Mike Toomey, was working at the time as an Austin-based lobbyist for Merck, which was in the midst of a multimillion-dollar campaign to persuade states to make the vaccine mandatory.
Toomey, who has declined to respond to requests for comment, has since gone on to help found Make Us Great Again, a pro-Perry super PAC that can accept unlimited donations from corporations and wealthy donors. Media reports indicate that the group plans to raise as much as $55 million to help Perry win the GOP nomination.
Until he began running for president, Perry staunchly defended the decision as a “pro-life” attempt to protect women’s health and sharply criticized social conservatives for their opposition. But Perry now says he made a mistake by not going to the legislature.
“If I had it to do over again, I would have done it differently,” he said Monday night.
Bachmann said at the debate in Tampa that “to have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat-out wrong.” She also criticized Perry’s ties to Merck: “The question is, is it about life, or was it about millions of dollars and potentially billions for a drug company?”
Bachmann upped the ante Tuesday morning, alleging that the vaccine is “dangerous” and repeating a claim from an unidentified audience member in Tampa that the vaccine caused “mental retardation” in her daughter.
Only the District of Columbia and Virginia require use of the vaccine, and federal health officials, Merck and others say they are confident it is safe.
The Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccine in 2006 for girls as young as 9, and medical authorities recommended that they receive it at age 11 or 12 to protect them before they start having sex.
But some experts said they are concerned that there is insufficient evidence about how long Gardasil’s protection will last, whether serious side effects will emerge in the future and whether the reduction in infections will necessarily translate into fewer cancers in the future.
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