WASHINGTON — Before bankrolling a Ted Cruz super PAC last year with $15 million, Texans Farris and Dan Wilks were fast gaining a reputation as “the Koch brothers of the Christian Right” and climbing swiftly up the ladder of America’s biggest landowners.
The Wilks brothers of Cisco in short order became prolific donors to hard-right politicians, anti-abortion causes and fundamentalist religious groups, donating tens of millions of dollars to organizations in Texas and across the country, campaign finance reports and available Internal Revenue Service filings by the brothers’ tax-exempt foundations show.
The brothers also have been generous to their North-Central Texas community, contributing millions to churches, emergency services and addiction counseling.
The means of their largesse arrived in 2011 when the brothers sold a fracking services company in which they held majority ownership for $3.5 billion to a consortium led by a Singapore government-owned investment company.
“Undercover billionaires,” Forbes called them in 2012 when introducing the Wilkses in the magazine’s annual accounting of the wealthiest Americans.
The brothers didn’t remain under cover for long.
Ronald W. Erdrich/Reporter-News Farris Wilks watches U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Ted Cruz deliver his remarks Tuesday Dec. 29, 2015 in the community center named after his mother. The "Reigniting the Promise Community Rally" was sponsored by the Keep the Promise Super PAC and held at the Myrtle Wilks Community Center in Cisco
Farris Wilks, 64, pastor of the Assembly of Yahweh 7th Day in Rising Star, and brother Dan, 59, are in many ways an American success story, brick masons who rose from a modest early life to become entrepreneurs and then billionaires.
After profiting greatly from the fracking boom, they set about to help fashion the kind of America they want — a country where religion trumps government and conservative values prevail.
Conservatives praise them for their generosity. But the brothers are raising hackles on the left.
Dan Quinn, spokesman for the Austin-based Texas Freedom Network, which bills itself as a watchdog for religious liberties, said the brothers only recently popped up on the organization’s radar screen as “sugar daddies to the Christian Right.”
“They seem laser-focused on issues very important to them,” he said.
The brothers declined requests to be interviewed for this report.
Peter Montgomery of the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way, likened their backing of religion-based groups to billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch supporting free-market and libertarian causes.
“Their willingness to pour millions of dollars into the presidential race and to write enormous checks for Religious Right organizations, give them the potential for make a huge and destructive impact on our politics,” he contended.
Last year, Farris Wilks and his wife, Jo Ann, donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to candidates in Texas, including $50,000 to San Antonio activist Jeff Judson, who’s challenging House Speaker Joe Straus in the GOP primary March 1.
In one of his ads, Judson urged voters to elect a “Bible-believing Christian” to replace Straus, who is Jewish. The ad also asserted a “disconnect between conservative, Christian voters and Joe Straus.”
In the run-up to the 2016 elections, the Wilks family members seem primed to exceed their $1.2 million in donations in Texas last cycle, $700,000 of which went to Ken Paxton’s winning campaign for attorney general.
Rather than sizing up need, the brothers often seem drawn to candidates who suit their ultraconservative tastes.
For instance, Dan Wilks and his wife, Staci, contributed $50,000 in 2014 to Rep. Matthew Schaefer, R-Tyler, who won his election with 87 percent of the vote.
Schaefer drew national attention last year for sponsoring an amendment that would have required pregnant women to carry to term fetuses with severe abnormalities.
Matt Mackowiak, an Austin-based GOP-aligned consultant, observed the brothers had operated under the radar until recently and that many candidates had not met them.
“My sense is that it was a conscious decision they made to become more active and to give larger amounts to a larger number of candidates and entities,” he said.
The Wilkses may have proceeded haltingly in Texas politics, but their foundations were speaking loudly with grants to conservative organizations across the country.
Over a period of three years, Farris Wilks’ The Thirteen Foundation donated to well-known conservative groups: at least $2.1 million to American Majority; $1.9 million each to the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family; and $1.5 million to the State Policy Network, an umbrella organization for conservative groups.
State Policy Network spokeswoman Meredith Turney, like representatives of many others receiving money, declined to comment about the Wilkses.
In an email, she wrote that donors “are helping to build a network of more than 60 state think tanks dedicated to promoting solutions that preserve American freedoms and provide the greatest opportunities to improve the lives of everyday people.”
Contributions also went to lesser-known groups, among them $1.5 million to the Florida-based Liberty Counsel, which handles litigation in cases of religious freedoms, and $1.3 million to the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which produces news and commentary with a conservative flavor.
Through his foundation, Farris Wilks, father of 11 children, has contributed heavily to anti-abortion groups in Texas and around the country.
They include donations of at least $1.9 million to Denton-based Life Dynamics, whose motto is “Pro-Life: without compromise, without exception and without apology.”
As its name suggests, Dan Wilks’ Heavenly Father Foundation, has focused on religion. Among recipients are the nondenominational Mountain Top Church in Cisco, which received over $6 million for a new building and other needs and nearly $3 million to the Serenity House of Abilene, which runs anti-addiction programs.
In his sermons, Farris Wilks has provided a sense of his worldview.
The Assembly of Yahweh 7th Day congregation began in the home of the brothers’ late father, Voy, in 1951.
The church describes itself as “a family-oriented group of believers seeking to return to the origins of the Christian faith.” Members have adopted customs of Judaism, observing neither Christmas nor Easter holidays. Services are held on Saturdays.
The church regards abortion as a crime and homosexuality as “a very grievous sin.” Women are instructed to dress modestly and remain silent during worship.
Farris’ church contrasts with the Mountain Top Church in Cisco, where Dan is chief benefactor and a director. Mountain Top features rock music and its own Starbucks.
In a sermon in 2013, Farris Wilks said he felt motivated after he and his brother returned from a Pastors and Pews gathering of evangelical leaders in Iowa led by David Lane, a California-based operative who encourages ministers to become political. Dan Wilks has donated at least $1.9 million for Pastors and Pews events.
“We have a lot more areas we can impact, a lot more areas where we can make a difference in,” he said, according to an audio provided by People for the American Way.
In his sermons, Wilks decries excesses of government and taxation and warns that socialism in America is drawing near.
“Socialism forces you to have transactions you don’t want. Because the government reaches in your pocket, takes your money and does what they think is right for you,” he said two years ago.
Shortly after Barack Obama won his second term in the White House in 2012, Wilks observed in a sermon that it was “like getting your team to the Super Bowl and then losing, only it was way worse than that.”
“What I saw was a changing of the way America will be as a nation from now on. I do believe our country died that Tuesday night to all that’s honorable, that’s good, that has ambition, that is justice,” he said. “And I’m afraid that the crash of this country is not long in coming.”
Besides politics and religion, the brothers invest heavily in land.
In 2015, they vaulted seven slots to a tie for No. 15 on the list of America’s top 100 private land owners with their estimated 500,000 acres, according to a year-end tally by the Land Report, which bills itself as the magazine of the American landowner.
Among those holdings are more than 340,000 acres in Montana, 38,000 acres in Idaho and a farm near Coats, Kansas. In December, Cruz visited Farris Wilks’ 4,000-acre ranch near Cisco to meet with 300 faith leaders, a gathering sponsored by the pro-Cruz super PAC the Wilkses financed.
The brothers also are partial to expensive homes. In Aspen, Colorado, Dan Wilks has bought two in an enclave of billionaires that includes the Koch brothers, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Michael Dell, the Austin personal computer magnate. Dan Wilks paid $9.2 million for one home and $3.375 million for another, the Pitkin County assessor’s office reports.
Dan Wilks donated $1.2 million for construction at a modern, nondenominational church in Aspen that offers meetings at a Caribbean restaurant and is sponsoring a song-writers retreat this spring.
His also paid a pastor’s salary.
Nearby, Farris Wilks bought a home in 2011 for $16 million, billed as the most expensive purchase at the time of a ski-accessible home in Snowmass Village.
In Montana, the Wilkses are the state’s biggest private landowners. They want more and have invested heavily in establishing a political foothold in the state.
In 2012, they began donating to dozens of candidates in Montana — all Republican — seeking offices from the U.S. Senate down to the superintendent of public instruction, records show.
It was unusual for a Republican running for the state Legislature not to get a check from the brothers or their wives: 70 percent of Montana’s GOP legislators got Wilks money in 2012, the Institute on Money in State Politics reports.
The Wilkses may have hoped they could rely on their new clout in another deal, a proposed land swap that riled many Montanans.
Within the brothers’ central Montana holdings lays Durfee Hills, a government-owned parcel of prime elk habitat with springs and expanses of conifer forests. In 2014, the Wilkses began pressing to acquire Durfee Hills and surrounding public land, adding up to 4,900 acres, by trading more than 5,000 thousand acres to the north that they had acquired for purposes of the trade.
The Wilkses’ view of federal land appears to resemble that of Ted Cruz. The Texan has sponsored legislation to limit federal land holdings and accused the government of plotting to acquire 90,000 acres of land along the Red River in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.
The brothers’ proposal would have provided access to lands within the Missouri River Breaks National Monument. But Montana hunters and conservationists teamed up to oppose the swap, arguing that what the Wilkses offered was far less rich in wildlife than Durfee Hills. The deal would set a “dangerous precedent” for land use across the West, they asserted in a petition 3,250 people signed.
The Montana Wildlife Federation based part of its opposition on photographs appearing to show the Wilks brothers had misused land by posting signs, bulldozing vegetation and building fences too high. Critics accused the Wilkses of trying to import a Texas model of private ownership of wildlife to lands where elk herds run free.
“When they have a piece of land, they essentially want to rule the world. They want complete control of wildlife,” asserted Bill Geer, a wildlife biologist for the federation and former chief of wildlife resources for the state of Utah.
Al Nash, a spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management, said his agency is investigating the allegations of misusing land.
Last month, the brothers learned that even billionaires don’t always get what they want. On Jan. 26, the Bureau of Land Management said no to the trade, declaring the agency lacked the time and money to further consider it.
By Bill Lambrecht, Washington Bureau