Ethics office: ‘Substantial reason to believe’ 2 Texas Republicans used campaign funds at social clubs

Ethics office: ‘Substantial reason to believe’ 2 Texas Republicans used campaign funds at social clubs

The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) has found “substantial reason to believe” that Reps. Wesley Hunt (R-Texas) and Ronny Jackson (R-Texas) improperly utilized campaign funds at two social clubs in Texas.

In two separate reports released Monday, the OCE — an independent, nonpartisan entity that reviews allegations of misconduct regarding lawmakers and staff members — found that Jackson and Hunt spent thousands of campaign dollars at two private Texas social clubs in a way that it said violates ethical standards.

Campaign finance laws forbid lawmakers from putting campaign funds toward personal use, which includes dues or fees paid at a country club, unless they are for a specific fundraising event.

The OCE recommended that the Ethics Committee further investigate the allegations, and the panel said it would review them, according to statements from the chair and ranking member on Monday. Attorneys for both lawmakers have argued that the funds spent at the social clubs were for official purposes.

In the case of Hunt, the OCE found that his campaign — Hunt for Congress — spent $74,525.60 in fees, meals and other services at the Oak Room, a private social club at the Post Oak Hotel in Houston, between April 2022 and January 2024.

Part of that sum— $5,412.50 — went toward dues and fee payments in 2022 and 2023. There were two disbursements for $2,706.25 each, with one labeled “Membership” in April 2022 and another for “Food/Beverages” in April 2023, according to the watchdog.

The OCE said Hunt provided some emails and text messages that “demonstrated his use of the club for some campaign-related meetings,” but added that the congressman’s “refusal to certify the completeness of his production to the OCE called into question whether there were other documents demonstrating use of the Oak Room for any personal purpose.”

Hunt, his wife, his chief of staff and his field representative all refused to sit for an interview with the OCE, it said.

“[W]ithout cooperation, the OCE could not determine the extent to which Rep. Hunt may have taken advantage of the Oak Room’s unique events or any hotel parking or room discount benefits,” the report adds.

In a lengthy statement addressed to the Ethics Committee, Chris Gober, Hunt’s counsel, contended that his client “has never used the Post Oak Club membership paid for by Hunt for Congress for any personal purpose.”

Gober also noted that Hunt “does not maintain a campaign office,” arguing the cost of a membership at the Oak Room “would be a more prudent use of campaign funds.”

The OCE also zeroed in on two large payments Hunt’s campaign made to the Post Oak Hotel. The entity said the campaign made a payment of $43,626.52 to the Post Oak Hotel on Nov. 4, 2022, for “Facility Rental/Catering,” followed by a $4,132.44 payment on Nov. 7, 2022.

It noted, however, that it could not determine if the payments were made “for legitimate campaign purposes” because the congressman would not sit for an interview.

Gober, Hunt’s attorney, said those funds were for an election night party.

“OCE’s position on these expenditures shows a casual disregard for common sense, context, and the documents that the Congressman provided,” Gober wrote, pointing out that one of the emails handed over to the entity said the campaign would be hosting an “Election Night Party” at the hotel on Nov. 7, 2022.

“The costs that OCE singled out were obviously for the Congressman’s victory party,” he wrote. “Needless to say, the costs of an election night party are legitimate campaign expenses.”

Jackson’s OCE report, meanwhile, is a continuation of a previous probe the watchdog conducted into the congressman.

The entity alleged that Jackson’s campaign — Texans for Ronny Jackson — utilized campaign funds to pay for unlimited access at the Amarillo Club, a private dining club in Amarillo, Texas. According to the group, Jackson’s campaign has spent $11,928.27 on dues, fees, meals and other services at the Amarillo Club between October 2020 and January 2024.

The OCE’s report released Monday follows a separate report made available to the public in May 2022, which, similarly, said the watchdog had “substantial reason to believe” that the congressman used campaign funds for membership dues and other services at the Amarillo Club.

In Monday’s report, the OCE said it opened another probe into Jackson’s use of campaign funds after not learning any new information about the payments in question from the Ethics Committee, and finding that Jackson has continued to use campaign funds at the Amarillo Club.

“In the period of time since the OCE’s December 17, 2021 referral, the Committee has continued to review the OCE’s referral pursuant to Committee Rule 18(a) and has offered no additional guidance on Rep. Jackson’s membership payments or enjoyment of the private club. In this time, Rep. Jackson has continued to make payments to the club undeterred,” the OCE wrote.

“In light of the enduring use of campaign funds for this purpose, the OCE opened this review,” it added.

The OCE said Jackson has refused to cooperate with the current probe. The congressman’s counsel told the watchdog “that a response would not be provided because — in their view — the present inquiry was merely an extension of the previous investigation that Rep. Jackson intended to reassert all of the arguments made in his official response to the proper OCE matter,” according to the report.

In a statement responding to the May 2022 OCE report, Jackson’s attorney Justin Clark said the Texas Republican bought a membership at the Amarillo Club so he could utilize meeting rooms at the facility “for internal and external meetings, including but not limited to fundraising events” and other campaign purposes.

The OCE, however, said without cooperation from Jackson — both he and the Amarillo Club declined to sit for interviews as part of the latest inquiry — the watchdog “could not determine to what extent his use of the club and the campaign committee’s food and beverage spending at the club was campaign related.”

“Regardless, the campaign committee’s payment of monthly dues implicates the prohibition against personal use of campaign funds,” the report adds.

The Hill reached out to Jackson’s office for comment.

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