A Texas congressman who recently returned thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to El Paso business leader Woody Hunt after losing a redistricting battle over Fort Bliss is using social media to call for a congressional investigation of military housing contractors like the company Hunt chairs.

U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-San Antonio, called for an immediate congressional investigation of “corrupt organizations like Hunt Companies who prey on American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines” in a Feb. 7 tweet from his campaign account. The El Paso-based Hunt Companies is the nation’s largest owner of privatized military housing. Gonzales’ tweet linked to an article about a recent housing fraud settlement involving Hunt Companies. 

Days later, Gonzales tweeted about a pending class action lawsuit at Hunt Companies’ military housing in Hawaii, where water contaminated with jet fuel led to the eviction of more than 2,000 residents.

Brenda Christman, a Hunt Companies spokesperson, said Gonzales’ initial tweet mischaracterized the housing fraud civil settlement, saying “the settlement is not an admission of liability and that the investigation has been resolved.”

The social media ire directed at Hunt Companies followed news that Gonzales returned large campaign contributions from Hunt the day after losing a redistricting battle to move Fort Bliss into his 23rd Congressional District. That district spans from San Antonio to far East El Paso County, and Hunt lobbied to keep the bulk of Fort Bliss in Democrat Veronica Escobar’s El Paso-based 16th Congressional District.

A public rift like this between a major donor and a legislator is unusual, according to Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

“This is a very public display of anger that is usually done much more privately,” Rottinghaus said. “It’s rare to see members of Congress so publicly distance themselves from wealthy donors, especially somebody like (Woody) Hunt who’s been such a stable Republican giver.”

Because Gonzales’ veteran status is central to his political identity, efforts to distance himself from Hunt and Hunt Companies on his campaign social media may signal a broader campaign strategy of framing himself as someone who bucks the establishment to stand up for military service members, Rottinghaus said.

Gonzales is running for a second term this year, and faces challengers Alma Arredondo-Lynch and Alía Garcia in the March 1 Republican primary. Former Marine John Lira and former congressional staffer Priscilla Golden are running in the Democratic primary.

Keeping the 23rd Congressional District red, which has long been a swing seat, is a priority for the Republican party, Rottinghaus said.

“I think Republicans see a bright future for (Gonzales),” Rottinghaus said. “He’s got a strong message, he’s a veteran, he’s Latino, and he’s from a Texas swing district. Republicans have finally won it and will likely continue to win it. So he’s a keeper.”

Not a clean break between Gonzales and Hunt

Hunt and Hunt Companies have long been influential in politics, tallying millions in campaign contributions and lobbying efforts, largely to Republican candidates and conservative agenda causes.

Hunt also donates to some Democratic candidates and causes, and was among the largest individual donors to Escobar’s 2022 reelection campaign. 

Escobar does not plan to refund contributions from Hunt, the congresswoman’s campaign manager said in an email to El Paso Matters.

Gonzales’ campaign spokesperson previously said the congressman returned $5,800 in contributions because Hunt “doesn’t share” Gonzales’ focus on “securing the border, tackling inflation, bringing opportunities to the district, (and) taking back the House.”

Gonzales was on the receiving end of other Hunt donations in 2021 that were not refunded. His leadership PAC, Honor Courage Commitment, received $5,000 from Hunt in 2021. Hunt also gave the National Republican Congressional Committee $86,000; Gonzales is a co-chair of the NRCC’s Young Guns program.

Gonzales and the NRCC chair did not respond to requests for comment about these donations.

The inconsistency in donation refunds is noteworthy, Rottinghaus said.

“It’s more than strange that (Gonzales) didn’t refund or work to refund other money that Hunt has donated,” he said. “To be as clean politically as it seems that Rep. Gonzales wants to be, all that money should go back.”

Lagging congressional oversight of privatized military housing

Privatized military housing, through which businesses like Hunt Companies hold lucrative contracts with the Department of Defense to provide housing for service members, was first implemented in 1996 with the Military Housing Privatization Initiative. More than 165,000 people live in the 52,000 military homes owned by Hunt Military Communities, according to Hunt Companies’ website.

The level of congressional oversight over military housing contractors has been a source of contention in recent years.

A 2019 congressional hearing on housing conditions for military families led Escobar to call for complete transparency from contractors and request that they report back regarding improvements in housing conditions.

Former Hunt Military Communities president John Ehle was among the contractors present in that hearing, during which he issued an apology to service members living in the company’s homes, saying, “We lost their trust, we are sorry, and we want to get it right.”

Gonzales has not responded to requests for comment about his call for a congressional investigation of Hunt Companies.

The housing fraud case Gonzales highlighted on Twitter alleged that Hunt Companies’ employees falsified service tickets in military homes with problems of mold, fire safety issues and water leakage from 2013 to 2019, in order to get higher performance incentive payouts. Though Hunt Companies agreed to pay $500,000, Christman, the company spokesperson, emphasized that the 2022 settlement agreement did not admit liability.

Sophia Reeves, Hunt Companies, Inc., Eagle Heights at Dover community director and Staff Sgt. Rachel Patterson, 3d Airlift Squadron loadmaster, place items in a 96-gallon recycle container Nov. 3, 2016, in Eagle Heights housing area on Dover Air Force Base, Del. Hunt Companies recently settled a case alleging fraudulent activity involving military housing at Dover Air Force Base. (Public domain photo by Roland Balik)

In regards to the pending class action lawsuit involving the company’s Hawaii housing, Christman said “the health and wellbeing of our residents, particularly our military families, is our top priority.”

“Our teams have been working tirelessly to support our residents during this difficult time. We have continuously communicated with and provided support and resources to our impacted residents.”

An attorney representing the evicted military families declined to comment on the record, citing the pending lawsuit.

A 2020 United States Government Accountability Office report found that the DOD needed to increase its oversight of military housing conditions. The report also noted that military housing dating data previously reported to Congress had been unreliable and misleading.

In an email to El Paso Matters, Escobar said she has “full faith” in the subcommittee leadership who provide military housing oversight.

“They have a record of approaching this work thoughtfully, while prioritizing the health, safety, and welfare of our military personnel and their families,” she said. “I know they will continue to engage in this important work, which I support.”

Given the nature of the concerns that Gonzales is raising with Hunt Companies, Rottinghaus said the refunded contributions make sense as part of a political strategy.

“It would look inappropriate to have Hunt money in the bank when (Rep. Gonzales is) calling for some investigation of this company,” he said

A rising star in the Republican Party, Gonzales has an ample war chest of reelection funds, Rottinghaus noted.

“He is going to protect that core part of his political biography (his status as a retired service member), that’s so meaningful to the district,” he said.

Cover photo: Rep. Tony Gonzales is running for reelection in Congressional District 23, which encompasses the easternmost edge of El Paso. (Photo courtesy Tony Gonzales campaign website)

Disclosure: The Woody and Gayle Hunt Family Foundation is a financial supporter of El Paso Matters.

René Kladzyk is a freelance reporter who also performs music as Ziemba. Follow her on Twitter @ziembavision.