A Waco-based company that holds a contract with Ector County to operate the county’s airport, Schlemeyer Field, is spending big to influence local races in the Republican Primary – and a local watchdog group says their incentive for spending big might be due to a potential return on investment of greater proportion.
Texas Aero, which is owned by Billy Meyer of Waco, operates several local airports and aviation-related companies, in addition to holding a contract with Ector County as the Flight Base Operator (FBO) where the company runs the airport reception center and makes a profit from aviation fuel sales, among other things.
Meyers and his company made multiple headlines last year when an Odessa Headlines investigation revealed that $15 million was quietly placed in the budget of the Texas Legislature via the budget conference committee earmarked to lengthen the runway at Schlemeyer Airport – a process which coincidentally helps conceal which lawmaker was responsible for the appropriation.
Controversy erupted when it was revealed that the amendment was pushed through the legislature behind the backs of Ector County officials, and the controversy continued when it was discovered that the appropriation was defunding other local airports across Texas, and as a matching funds grant, county taxpayers would have to put up a ten percent match to secure the funds. Also, concerns that a longer runway would bring additional unfunded mandate liability on local taxpayers further exacerbated the saga.
When local officials sought an explanation from State Representative Brooks Landgraf regarding the appropriation, Landgraf gave a long detailed explanation that the funds were part of a planned high altitude DPS surveillance program to help secure the southern border and that this “windfall” came about at the request of the Department of Public Safety who he claimed worked through State Representative Greg Bonnen to secure the funds, and encouraged support for the amendment under the guise of supporting the needs of law enforcement.
His story was later proven to be false, and Landgraf later changed his story and claimed Texas Aero was his source of the border security tale and avoided responding to multiple questions regarding his involvement with a major Austin based lobby firm, Hillco Partners, that public records revealed Texas Aero hired to secure the funds.
Landgraf acknowledged he was aware of the amendment before its passage, yet never informed local officials about it.
Fast forward, Ector County Commissioners rejected the $15 million, and the funds remain locked in appropriation that theoretically the county could reverse course on and still secure.
Three candidates running for office in Ector County appear to have received thousands in campaign cash, both directly and indirectly from entities associated with Texas Aero, including Landgraf, Ector County Judge candidate Dustin Fawcett, and candidate for Precinct 2 Commissioner Ryan Patton.
According to finance records obtained by Transparency USA, Texas Aero hired Hillco Partners to lobby the Texas Legislature and has paid upwards of over $200,000 for their efforts.
Hillco Partners, through their political action committee has contributed $6,000 to the Landgraf campaign in recent reporting periods, with a $1,000 contribution being made in January of this year. It is unknown how much has been spent in support through lobbying efforts.
But the airport operator has now gone even deeper into Ector County politics, heavily investing both directly and indirectly behind Fawcett and Patton.
In the latest campaign finance reports, Brazos Endeavors LLC has given Fawcett $45,439.10 via in-kind donations in the form of direct mail, TV ads, advertising production, and radio advertising.
A quick online search revealed that “Brazos Endeavors” is also headquartered at the same address in Waco as Texas Aero, and both companies share the same management/leadership.
Meanwhile, County Commissioner Candidate Ryan Patton, who is challenging incumbent Precinct 2 Commissioner Greg Simmons, received the bulk of his funding in his latest disclosure report from Billy Meyer himself, showing a $5,000 direct contribution from the Waco businessman.
Both Fawcett and Patton have weighed in on the airport issue and have taken similar positions that the money was rejected too quickly by the county and that there should be more discussion held on whether the money could be secured without being limited to its statutory scope of lengthening the runways.
In a post on his campaign Facebook page, Fawcett wrote that he does not support making the runways longer, and further stated that he supports more exploration with regard to whether the funds can still be used for general improvements, and also stated that he would oppose any attempts to expand the current footprint of the airport or attempts to commercialize it.
“I do NOT support lengthening the runways to support some type of commercial traffic business model. This is a county airport that serves the needs of the constituents. The citizens of Ector County will always come before private business,” Fawcett wrote.
A local watchdog group, the Odessa Accountability Project, has attacked Fawcett for accepting the funds and has maintained the reason for the county airport operator to get so heavily involved in local elections is because they are expecting a return on investment.
“Why would Texas Aero’s people pump over $43,000 into a county judge race if they didn’t expect something in return? And what is it they expect? Are they still going to try to extend the runway and leave Ector County taxpayers with the bill for the maintenance? Are they still intent on bringing lots of bigger planes and heavily increased air traffic over new residential neighborhoods, retail shopping centers, playgrounds, the baseball field, and Ratliff Stadium?”
Polls for the March 1, Republican Primary Election open Tuesday at 7 AM and will remain open until 7 PM. A list of local polling locations can be found here.