Rep. Wesley Hunt under investigation for $74,000 in Post Oak Hotel payments

Hunt and Congressman Ronny Jackson used campaign funds to pay bills at exclusive private clubs in Amarillo and Houston.

ByThe Texas Tribune, Matthew Choi
Tuesday, June 25, 2024
Eyewitness News at 4:30am - June 25, 2024
Eyewitness News at 4:30am - June 25, 2024

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Reps. Ronny Jackson, R-Amarillo, and Wesley Hunt, R-Houston, are under investigation for using campaign funds for private club memberships in a potential violation of campaign finance rules, according to reports released Monday by Congressional investigators.

Jackson spent nearly $12,000 since 2020 on membership at the tony Amarillo Club, and Hunt spent over $74,000 between April 2022 and January 2024 at the Post Oak Hotel, including membership fees at its exclusive Oak Room club, according to the reports. Federal campaign finance rules allow campaign funds for specific events at private clubs, but not typically for membership or unlimited access.

The Office of Congressional Ethics approved the reports in March, sending them to the House Ethics Committee for investigation. The OCE is made up of nonpartisan professional staffers who recommend ethics inquiries to the House Ethics Committee. The committee has five Republican and five Democratic members of Congress and can recommend sanctions to be voted on by the whole chamber. U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, is the only Texan on the committee.

The House Ethics Committee announced the separate investigations into Jackson and Hunt in May, but details of the allegations were scarce before Monday, when the committee released the OCE reports as part of a procedural requirement to extend their investigations.

Jackson said in his written response to the OCE investigation that he did not violate ethics rules. Hunt provided documents related to his Oak Room expenses, but they were heavily redacted, according to the OCE. He declined to sit for an interview by the office, but his lawyers said he did nothing wrong.

The OCE and Ethics Committee opened a near identical investigation in 2022 into Jackson's use of campaign funds to pay for Amarillo Club dues. The Ethics Committee never released its findings on that probe - a cue Jackson apparently took to continue using campaign funds on the club.

In a 2022 email to the Ethics Committee, Jackson's lawyers said club membership included event space for fundraising that was less than the cost of renting meeting space on an individual basis. His lawyers said Jackson and his wife never personally benefited from club membership.

"This baseless complaint from OCE raises no new information, and despite over two years at the Committee on Ethics it is still being looked into," a Jackson spokesperson said in a statement when the Ethics Committee announced the probe earlier this year. "Once again, Congressman Jackson has nothing to hide, and he and his team have fully complied with the Ethics Committee since the beginning. This is sadly not the first time the leftists at OCE have decided to waste taxpayer dollars going after public servants for absolutely nothing."

The spokesperson directed comment on the OCE reports released Monday back to the May statement.

The OCE report said the Amarillo Club declined to give information that could confirm Jackson used the club for strictly campaign reasons.

The Amarillo Club offers fine dining, wine tastings, vistas over West Texas and a private gym. It also offers reciprocity with other exclusive clubs around the country, including the Capitol Hill Club in Washington. The Capitol Hill Club is a popular haunt for Republicans and hosted a meeting with President Donald Trump and house Republicans earlier this month.

Hunt's expenses include membership fees and other expenses at the Post Oak Hotel, which houses the exclusive Oak Room club. His campaign finance disclosures show a 2022 expense for "membership" of $2,706.25 to the club. Another disclosure a year later had an expense to the club for the exact same amount labeled as "food/beverages."

Hunt's lawyers point out a past Federal Election Commission opinion that said that social club dues could be permissible if they were strictly for campaign-related activities and not life-style changes, such as an athletic or country club. Unlike the Amarillo Club, the Oak Room doesn't have athletic facilities and is largely a meeting and dining space. The expenses cited in the OCE report were for Hunt's campaign watch party, his lawyers said.

"Consistent with the Oak Room's advertised purpose, the Congressman has used Post Oak Club membership exclusively for meetings in the Oak Room with campaign donors, supporters, consultants, and vendors," Hunt's lawyers said in a letter to OCE. "We provided OCE with numerous emails, text messages, and calendar entries demonstrating the Congressman's use of the Oak Room and the Hotel's other facilities for such purposes."

The more intimate Oak Room is frequented by Houston celebrities and enforces a strict no camera rule. Peyton Manning, Jon Bon Jovi and Kendall Jenner have all hosted events there, according to The Houston Chronicle.

Hunt and Jackson are not the only Texas lawmakers under investigation by the committee. U.S. Rep. Troy Nehls, R-Richmond, is under investigation after his campaign paid more than $25,000 in rent to a company registered under his name. Nehls' attorney said the business is linked to the campaign and the expenses were legitimate.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar is also facing an investigation in the committee for allegedly accepting bribes, working as a foreign agent and laundering money. The committee investigation follows his federal indictment in Houston for the same charges. Cuellar is scheduled to go to trial next year.

Jackson also faced an investigation by the Defense Department's inspector general over allegations he acted improperly as White House physician. The inspector general found in a 2021 report that he bullied subordinates and made sexually inappropriate remarks in the post. The Navy subsequently demoted him from admiral to captain.

Jackson served as White House physician to Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. He dismissed the inspector general report as retaliation for his support for Trump.

"There's no nice or polite way to say this: It's a total bull---- political hit job," Jackson wrote in his 2022 memoir, "Holding the Line."

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