SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Willis Johnson said he just wanted to help.
So, earlier this month the billionaire Republican donor, who amassed a fortune building an international junkyard empire, took the unusual step of calling South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a rising Republican star who has railed against illegal immigration and aligned herself firmly with former President Donald Trump.
He asked if she wanted to send National Guard troops from South Dakota to the U.S.-Mexico border — and offered up $1 million to help.
Noem said, “Yes.”
Her acceptance of the donation from Johnson, who doesn't even live in Noem's state but rather in Tennessee, has drawn intense scrutiny. It landed in state coffers Tuesday and though it came from Johnson's private foundation and appears to be legal, experts say it sets a troubling precedent in which a wealthy patron is effectively commandeering U.S. military might to address private political motivations.
“I didn’t know it would build into a bonfire,” said Johnson, who answered his phone on the second ring and estimates he’s talked to about 50 reporters since the news broke. “It’s getting out there a lot more than I thought.”
Whether the decision to accept his help will amount to smart politics or policy blunder for Noem is unclear. In the short term, at least, the decision has catapulted her into the headlines and generated even more attention for a possible presidential run in 2024.
Yet the pay-to-play transaction also highlights another way that big-dollar donors have insinuated themselves into governmental process to drive decisions. It also shows the lengths to which some GOP governors will go to show their fealty to Trump even as they try to position themselves for higher office.
“We don’t need this donation and whether it’s legal or not, it’s a terrible idea because it looks like our guardsmen are being used as political pawns,” said South Dakota state Sen. Reynold Nesiba, a Democrat.
Noem's spokesman Ian Fury said the money would help alleviate the cost to taxpayers of deploying the 50-person contingent, adding that it could legally be accepted into a state fund designated for responding to emergencies and disasters. South Dakota currently has a budget surplus, something Noem has boasted about.
South Dakota state law suggests that's not the way such donations are intended to be used. The law states that the fund can only be used “to meet special emergency requirements of the Division of Emergency Management,” an agency tasked with preparing the state for natural disasters or other emergencies.
Republican governors from Arkansas, Florida, Nebraska and Iowa have all committed to sending law enforcement officers or national guardsmen to the border. But Johnson says South Dakota is the only state he's donated to, a decision motivated by Noem's quick response to a call from Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott for assistance.
Immigration continues to be an animating issue in the Republican Party, stoked by Trump. On Wednesday, the former president and a group of about two-dozen Republican members of Congress toured the border in the Rio Grande Valley, where they railed against President Joe Biden's handling of the border.
“The other ones were slow to react,” said Johnson, 74. “If they are procrastinators then I'm not going to help.”
Johnson, who also donated to Trump's presidential campaign, amassed his fortune starting almost literally from a scrapheap.
A native Oklahoman, he learned the trade from his father. After serving in Vietnam, Johnson bought an old tow truck and his own wrecking yard in Vallejo, California. Through aggressive acquisition and an embrace of online technology, he built what is now known as Copart Inc. into a publicly traded global business.
He relocated to suburban Nashville over a decade ago, buying a home from country music star Alan Jackson.
Now a prolific donor, he's given at least $2.3 million to federal campaigns over the past decade, including $900,000 to Trump, records show.
“America has been good to me. The Lord has been good to me," said Johnson, whose memoir is titled “From Junk to Gold: Lessons I Learned.”
“I help upcoming senators, congressmen and governors. I’m behind the scenes. I try to keep it quiet." Until now.
Separately, his family's philanthropy, Willis and Reba Johnson's Foundation, typically gives $1 million or more a year to churches and charities — including so-called abortion alternative services, disclosures show.
According to U.S. Defense officials and tax experts, his foundation's donation to South Dakota is highly unorthodox but permissible.
As South Dakota's governor, Noem has the legal authority to send her troops to Texas on state-activated duty, funded by the state, the defense officials said. The two states are also working within an existing emergency pact that allows them to send guard troops to each other when needed. Once in Texas, the South Dakota Guard troops would be under the Texas governor’s authority.
Officials said that the private funding given to South Dakota did not go directly to the National Guard. Instead it goes into the state treasury, and the state has wide latitude over how the money can be spent. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations on state matters.
The White House said the use and funding of the National Guard was the governor’s prerogative. The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment.
The duties of the South Dakota National Guard contingent are not yet precisely known. Texas' own guard will have a limited scope of duty that does not include making arrests and will focus instead on observing and reporting, according to statement from the agency.
Steven Bucklin, a professor emeritus at the University of South Dakota who has written on the history of the National Guard, said he was concerned about how the private donation threatened the distinction of the military as an apolitical organization.
“The optic is one that the South Dakota National Guard are soldiers of fortune and will go anywhere that some billionaire sends them,” he said, adding, “I think this is all politics.”
Slodysko reported from Washington. Lita Baldor contributed reporting from Washington.