Political observers are raising eyebrows after the disclosure that Gov. Tim Pawlenty hand-delivered a $100,000 check from a wealthy Texas donor to the Alabama Republican Party last week.
Pawlenty said Tuesday the check was written by Bob Perry, a big-time Republican donor who helped the governor get re-elected in 2006.
Pawlenty downplayed the delivery, but some observers say it reflects his growing stature within the Republican party and points out flaws in the campaign finance system.
The news of the check first surfaced on Friday night in Montgomery, Ala., where Gov. Pawlenty was the keynote speaker at the Alabama Republican Party's Red, White and Blue dinner.
Alabama Republican Party Chair Mike Hubbard introduced Pawlenty by mentioning that the governor arrived with a large donation.
"So when Gov. Pawlenty came through the doors of the hotel today, he brought with him a check for $100,000," said Hubbard. "It's made to the Alabama Republican Party. So not only is Gov. Pawlenty not charging us, he's bringing money with him. He's our favorite speaker."
On Monday, officials representing Pawlenty's federal political action committee and the Alabama Republican Party would not identify the donor. But Tuesday, Pawlenty revealed the contribution came from Texas homebuilder Bob Perry.
Pawlenty said he met with Perry during a fundraising trip to Texas in early January. He called it a coincidence that he met with Perry at the same time the Alabama Republican Party was asking him for money.
"Bob Perry is a long-time supporter of the Alabama Republican Party, or at least has made previous contributions to it," said Pawlenty. "I was there on behalf of the [Republican Governors Association], and he said, 'I understand you're going to Alabama.' I said yes, and he said, 'You want to bring them a check?' I said 'sure,' and that was the end of it."
Perry is one of the biggest GOP donors in the country, giving millions to political parties, independent organizations and candidates. In 2004, he helped fund the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth group that targeted Democrat John Kerry's presidential campaign.
This also isn't the first time Perry's name has surfaced in connection with Pawlenty. In 2006, Perry gave $500,000 to an independent group that helped Pawlenty win re-election. That group, A Stronger America Minnesota, ran ads in the last few weeks of the campaign criticizing Pawlenty's Democratic opponent Mike Hatch.
In 2008, Perry was a member of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's Texas leadership team and supported Romney's bid for president.
Pawlenty has not ruled out a run for president in 2012, and has been traveling the country to campaign for Republican candidates and raise money for his political action committee. He has visited 19 states since he announced in June that he wasn't running for a third term as governor.
University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs said Pawlenty shuttling a check on Perry's behalf sends a signal to Republicans in Alabama and across the country that they should take notice of Pawlenty.
"By Gov. Pawlenty showing up with a check, it was basically a message from Perry, 'You can trust this guy. I met with him and I'm going to spread a little fun around in your organization with this check. And by the way, notice who brought it,'" said Jacobs.
Josh Israel, with the government watchdog group the Center for Public Integrity, said there's nothing illegal about Pawlenty's action, but he said it raises ethical issues.
"It's indicative of a system where the people with the biggest checkbooks have influence, and have access to our elected officials and to the decisionmakers who are making decisions about their industries," he said.
Israel said one way to make the system better is to provide instant disclosure of high-dollar donations. Both Israel and Jacobs say it's rare that a candidate hand-delivers checks on behalf of donors.
Pawlenty is scheduled to visit Missouri, Nevada and Washington D.C. this month to give speeches to other Republican groups. He said he'd love to deliver more checks, but insisted the Perry situation was merely a coincidence.