In 2005, David A. Jones Sr., founder of health insurance giant Humana Inc., needed help raising money for a Louisville, Ky., parks project he was personally overseeing. So Jones and then-Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson — a Democrat — turned to the most powerful person in Kentucky politics: GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell. They asked McConnell for $10 million in federal funds for the project. Instead, the then-Senate majority whip came through with $38 million in a spending earmark, breaking the good news himself to Jones in a late-night phone call.
Jones has also been quite helpful to McConnell; the veteran senator’s earmark came several months after it was disclosed that Jones and the charitable foundations he and his family control had donated $1.6 million to the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville, which both men attended.
Jones didn’t personally benefit from the park earmark — in fact, he donated $15 million of his own money to the parks project. He told POLITICO that none of the funds from the earmark were used to purchase properties from him or his family, who have real estate interests in the Louisville area. A McConnell aide likewise waved off any suggestion of impropriety.
But Jones has been one of McConnell’s most powerful and lasting political benefactors. Jones, his family and Humana employees have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to McConnell’s political committees over the past several decades, making them one of McConnell’s biggest sources of campaign dollars, campaign reports show.
McConnell’s special relationship with the well-known Louisville businessman may seem an anachronism in the current era when earmarks and pork-barrel spending, long a McConnell staple, are no longer in vogue with the GOP’s conservative wing. But as McConnell faces criticism even from the right during his 2014 reelection campaign, the friendship — and financial support — from influential supporters may prove especially valuable, particularly from Humana, one of the largest private employers in his state. And the relationship with Jones and Humana also provides insight into how McConnell, an uncharismatic pol who prefers the cloakroom to the campaign stump, has made himself a political colossus in a relatively poor state that can always use financial favors — and where the power structure will show its gratitude.
In 2009, an emotional Jones — who retired from Humana four years earlier — donated $1 million to help pay for the “Mitch McConnell-Elaine Chao Archives” at the McConnell Center. The archives include items such as McConnell’s childhood sports memorabilia, high school yearbooks, family photos and campaign records. During the opening ceremony for the archives, Jones recalled how McConnell had helped one of his sons injured in the first Persian Gulf War.
And just in July 2013, the Humana Foundation Inc. announced it would give an additional $2 million to the McConnell Center, bringing the total donations tied to Jones to $4.6 million. The 82-year-old Jones and his son, David A. Jones Jr. — a current member of Humana’s board — are both directors of the insurance company’s charity.
For well over a decade as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, McConnell steered hundreds of millions of dollars in federal pork back home, including the funds for the Louisville parks project run by Jones. Through skillful use of hundreds of earmarks worth $2 billion or more, McConnell was able to build a formidable power base that made him the most feared politician in the Bluegrass State. For instance, between 2008 and 2010 — a period covering McConnell’s last reelection campaign to 2010, when earmarks were banned — he secured $454 million for his home state, according to the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.
McConnell’s skill as a rainmaker for his state — as well as his vaunted constituent service operation — has earned the thanks of many Kentuckians. Take Jones and his family, for example — they overall, along with Humana employees, have given more than $193,000 to McConnell and his various fundraising entities over the past three decades, according to FEC records and the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign watchdog group.
Jones, a lawyer and CPA, and McConnell declined interview requests to discuss their relationship — though Jones sent a letter in response to POLITICO questions. Don Stewart, McConnell’s spokesman, insisted there was no “nefarious connection” between McConnell’s push for the $38 million park earmark and Jones’s gifts to the McConnell Center. And Stewart also rebutted questions over McConnell’s efforts to defend Humana from a fight with the Obama administration over health care.
“His support for the parks projects predates all of his Senate campaigns,” Stewart said of McConnell. “I’m not sure what else to say to get that across to you in your desperate search to find some, any, nefarious connection.”
Stewart added: “The Leader’s First Amendment advocacy over the last 30 years was not contingent on Mr. Jones’ personal support for the University of Louisville or his philanthropy on behalf of the city’s parks initiative.” McConnell spoke out in Humana’s defense when the company came under pressure from the Obama administration over its opposition to Obamacare.
Following the 2010 tea party wave, McConnell grudgingly reversed course and abandoned earmarks, eliminating a major selling point that he has repeatedly touted in past elections. Now that he’s facing a tea-party-backed challenger in 2014, the old spending projects have amounted to a liability of sorts with conservatives.
“There are no earmarks anymore, so there’s limited ability of what he can do,” Gary Gregg, a McConnell friend and director of the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center, said in an interview this spring. “So if you’re writing this story 15 years ago, it’s a different world, 10 years ago even, it’s a different world.” Gregg declined to discuss the McConnell-Jones relationship.
The University of Louisville strongly opposed efforts to release the names of McConnell Center donors — many of them corporations or special interests with business before the Senate — but was later forced to do so after legal challenges. Jones, however, voluntarily disclosed his own gifts in 2004.
When asked by POLITICO about his relationship with McConnell, Jones — who doesn’t talk to the press often — sent a letter describing his three-decade relationship with McConnell in response.
“I first met and knew him more than 30 years ago when he was our Jefferson County, Ky., judge executive. In that role, he added significantly to our Jefferson Forest, the largest of its kind in America and tremendously important to our environment,” Jones said of McConnell.
Jones added: “He later founded the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville, my alma mater. It finds, recruits and funds some of Kentucky’s brightest young students, whose minds and horizons are broadened by the robust program, foreign engagement and eminent speakers encountered. … Mrs. Jones and our family foundation have been longtime major donors to the McConnell Center, which we believe to be perhaps the university’s finest undergraduate program.”
Jones, though, declined to answer any follow-up questions.
The ties between McConnell and Jones, considered by some to be the most powerful man in Kentucky, go back decades. And at about the same time that McConnell was starting his political career working as a Capitol Hill aide, and later as a top official in Jefferson County, Ky., Jones was building Humana as a dominant presence in the Bluegrass State.
Jones, who founded Humana in 1961 — it was called Extendicare until 1974 — initially supported McConnell’s opponent, former Sen. Walter “Dee” Huddleston, as the Democratic incumbent sought a third term against McConnell, an upstart GOP challenger, Federal Election Commission records show.
However, by May 1984, Jones was donating to McConnell, kicking in $2,000 to the Kentucky Republican’s campaign before Election Day. And Jones has continued to back McConnell ever since. In the interim, both men have devoted considerable effort to building up the city of Louisville: Jones through his private giving, which amounts to millions of dollars, and McConnell through his championing of earmarks.
In February 1989, when McConnell started his leadership PAC, the Bluegrass Committee, Jones was the first donor, kicking in $5,000. Other Humana executives kicked in an additional $7,000, and the company’s PAC hosted the Bluegrass Committee’s first event, FEC records show.
Jones, his family and Humana have given a total of $53,000 to the Bluegrass Committee, FEC records show.
When McConnell served as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee during the 1998 and 2000 election cycles, Jones gave $100,000 in soft money to the committee, his biggest political donations ever. Humana gave an additional $10,000 in soft money.
Jones — who has given heavily to both Republicans and Democrats — and three family members donated nearly $98,000 to the NRSC in one day in 2007 as McConnell was seeking reelection.
Jones also starred in a 2008 reelection ad for McConnell, talking up the senator’s credentials as a conservationist. “Sen. McConnell’s support of the parks in Louisville is absolutely essential,” Jones said.
McConnell has done his bit for Humana as well.
When Humana came under fire in 2009 from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services over a mailing the company had sent to its customers criticizing Obamacare, McConnell went to the Senate floor and blasted the White House and administration.
“We cannot allow government officials to target individuals or companies because they do not like what they have to say,” McConnell said. CMS and the White House later backed down on what McConnell angrily described as a “gag rule” aimed at Humana and other health insurers.
McConnell aides say this action was not unexpected, given the senator’s furious opposition to the health care law.
Neither McConnell nor Jones would discuss what efforts the Kentucky Republican made on behalf of the businessman’s injured son. McConnell’s office said it could not do so under the Privacy Act.
When the McConnell-Chao exhibition opened in November 2009, an emotional Jones “said his son had been seriously wounded while fighting in the [first] Gulf War and McConnell ‘was there for me and my family, and I’ll never forget it,’” a university report said. Jones and his wife, Betty, have five children.
Original Publication URL: http://www.politico.com/story/2013/09/mitch-mcconnell-humana-founder-96509.htmlDiscussion