Monty Bennett’s fire and brimstone journey

Pugnacious real estate magnate makes publishing and politics his new battlegrounds

Monty Bennett (Photo-illustration by Paul Dilakian/The Real Deal)
Monty Bennett (Photo-illustration by Paul Dilakian/The Real Deal)

UPDATED May 1, 2023, 4:45 p.m.

It’s not surprising to hear about a Texas landowner dead set against eminent domain. In the case of Monty Bennett, though, he literally set the dead in the proposed path of bulldozers and backhoes. 

The Dallas-based hotel mogul waged an expensive, extensive, and ultimately successful campaign to stop the Tarrant Regional Water District from running a pipeline through his 1,500-acre East Texas ranch, including placing a cemetery in the path of the pipeline to “thwart the District’s plans.” That was part of a six-year crusade beginning in 2010 that saw Bennett create his own water district, place exotic animals on his ranch in a bid for federal protection and shower money on friendly candidates in an election to shift the leadership of the utility.

“I can want a cemetery, and I can put it in the path,” Bennett told D Magazine in 2016 when discussing the burial plot, which he said contained the remains of a World War II veteran and that of an acquaintance whose family didn’t have money for a burial. (Opponents of the candidates he backed for water district races sent out mailers with an image of what appeared to be a freshly dug-up grave). 

Evidently, Bennett can also alter his property. He filed papers to create a set of four cemeteries with Henderson County in March 2014, deeding four separate plots of his Lazy W Ranch. But a year later, he filed papers that, according to local clerks and land use experts, effectively reincorporated three of these cemetery plots back into his property, the Lazy W Conservation district. 

Bennett, who declined to be interviewed by The Real Deal, is known for a few things. First, his business success; the Ashford Group, a set of private and public firms and REITs he controls, oversees just shy of $4 billion in assets, including iconic properties such as the Beverly Hills Marriott and the Ritz Carlton in Atlanta. Next, the water district saga. And most controversially, he became known during the pandemic as the “face of corporate greed” regarding PPP funds, the Covid-era government relief measures that his firms collectively became the largest recipient of. Bennett, barraged by public pressure, returned the money — he was never accused of wrongdoing. 

And, even among notoriously scrappy real estate developers, he’s known as a fighter. His ranch, private property that had been in his family for generations, can be seen as the subject of a clearly personal battle. But the tactics and strategies he utilized to protect it have in many ways been expanded upon, especially in the political arena, where he’s donated at least $1.2 million to candidates and causes since 2017, and the publishing world, where he runs the Dallas Express, an online news outlet that resurrected the name of a historic Black-owned paper and covers general interest stories through a conservative lens.

Bennett has used his considerable wealth to advance his world views. Lance Gooden, a state Senator-turned U.S. Representative who has received more than $100,000 in donations from Bennett and owned property with him, would go on to author HB 3864, which created the Lazy W District No. 1, a municipal district. The Texas Scorecard, a publication launched and previously run by Empower Texans, a PAC that Bennett donated to, ran a story that lionized his pipeline battle: “Officials say they’re ‘infuriated’ because they weren’t able to run over landowner Monty Bennett like they do ‘ordinary people,’” the article reads.

Anyone who underestimates Monty’s tenacity and his thirst for a fight does so at their own peril.
Tim Rogers, D Magazine

Ashford’s stock is down 99 percent over the past five years, hovering at roughly $3.30 as of April 21. But those who know Bennett well don’t see him backing down.  

“Anyone who underestimates Monty’s tenacity and his thirst for a fight does so at their own peril,” said Tim Rogers, an editor at D Magazine, which has extensively covered Bennett. “I think he looks at all of his territory, whether it’s generational farmland or a digital news outpost in Dallas, and sees it the same way. He protects it with the same gusto, which is spectacular to watch.”

Man of the land

In addition to being a weekend escape for his family, Bennett’s ranch outside of Athens, Texas, is also where he was married, under a tree bearing his wife’s name, and where she runs her own food business. And it’s a symbol of childhood: Bennett grew up chasing armadillos, fishing and getting lost on the expansive property, which his grandparents purchased in 1955.

Bennett’s father, Archie Bennett Jr. was himself an extremely successful hotelier, who started Remington, a hotel management firm. Mentored in part by oil magnate Bob Smith, Archie started with a single hotel in Galveston, and parlayed it into Remington Hotel Corp. which would eventually oversee $1 billion in assets. He found a niche turning around underperforming hotels, such as the historic Hotel Galvez, and went on to become a commissioner of the Port of Houston, and a businessman with investors and partners such as George Soros and Goldman Sachs

Monty grew up in the business, working there during summers at Cornell and after graduation in 1989, taking on a variety of roles within the firm. In 2003, sensing an opportunity as hotel values dropped after 9/11, he gathered six hotels he owned with his father and launched Ashford as a public company. 

“I started with very little and over the course of 30 years, with the help of many others, built a multi-billion dollar hotel business,” Bennett wrote on Medium in March 2020, in an essay criticizing the government’s handling of the pandemic, titled “What’s wrong with America?”   

The hospitality lineage runs on both sides of the family. Monty and his siblings, including twin brother Matt, who currently runs Christian Union, a New York-based Christian leadership development organization, were born during Archie’s first marriage to Beverly Wilson Smith. After meeting at the University of Houston, the couple settled in the western part of the city and had six kids in five years, including two sets of twins. Smith was the daughter of E.E. “Jack” Wilson, and sister of Welcome and Jack Emilus Wilson, all significant real estate players in Houston and part of the Welcome Group; Jack Emilus, who would partner with a president of the Motion Picture Association and a Houston mayor, developed resorts, hotels, apartments, and industrial property, and had a large stake in the Houston Astros baseball team. 

Bennett’s protective stance over the ranch, then, may stem from what it represents to him. He also has strongly held political views, and has expressed a belief that he doesn’t get fair play in what he considers a biased media environment. 

“Truth has become a casualty in today’s media world,” he wrote in a 2021 publisher’s note introducing the new iteration of the Dallas Express. He would describe it as “a nonprofit operation and there’s no other agenda.”

​​“The Dallas Express is dedicated to providing truth and facts in a way that is easy for our readership to access,” a spokesperson, Stacey Shelton, told Editor & Publisher in 2021. 

Bennett’s move into media came after a fractious period. In 2020, when he was dealing with the fallout stemming from the PPP program, Brookfield Asset Management, an Ashford lender, accused Ashford in a letter of committing a “fraudulent scheme” by moving money between entities. Bennett told the Wall Street Journal that Brookfield was trying to push him into accepting unfavorable loan terms (Brookfield, through a spokesperson, declined to comment; a Brookfield subsidiary, Oaktree, would later provide Ashford a $350 million lifeline ). 

“The backlash occurred because the media reported outright falsehoods or implied wrongdoing,” Bennett told the Dallas Morning News in July 2020, referring to the PPP loans drama. “So my employees suffered, and this is why so many people hate the media.”

The Marriott Beverly Hills, one of several dozen hotels owned by Bennett’s Ashford Hospitality Trust.

Bennett also, according to a New York Times investigation published in late 2020, ordered a series of stories published via a network of conservative pay-to-play news sites run by Metric Media. Metric-associated papers began running stories that spoke of “vulture tactics” attacking the hotel industry. HOTELS Together, an industry initiative set up in 2020 to lobby for Covid relief, ran Metric Media stories on their websites, and was run by Bradley Cameron, the CEO of SMG and the President of Metric Media LLC (Cameron didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment). 

An article in the Columbia Journalism Review argued that Metric uses the language of citizen journalism, yet “is part of a sprawling network that promotes political agendas and corporate interests, without disclosing those ties to the public.” It concluded that the Express “relied on the same technology stack and writers as the Metric Media sites.” The authors received an email from Bennett simply stating that “most of our findings are wrong.”

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The earliest incarnation of the Express included articles with bylines such as Bella Ferris and Andy Nghiem, writers who still contribute to the Express and whose journalistic output seems mostly confined to other Metric Media network sites. More recently, the paper has run numerous articles from a wire service called the Center Square, a news service run by the Franklin Foundation, which is in turn funded by the Koch Brothers. Media Matters calls Center Square “​​the latest iteration of an existing propaganda machine that dresses up a biased conservative spin as reliable news.”

The Bennett-era Dallas Express has also published op-eds and stories with connections to Bennett (the publication has begun to include a conflict disclaimer). Other editorials come from allies Bennett has supported politically. The opinion piece “Protecting Educators From the Woke Mob” from August was written by Texan Sandi Walker, vice chair of the Keller Independent School District Board of Trustees, who was endorsed by a group Bennett had funded. 

Bennett has rallied against criticism of the Express, suing two Dallas journalists, including Rogers and Steven Monacelli, who wrote in the Dallas Weekly that Bennett was running a “right-wing propaganda site.” In August, a judge dismissed Bennett’s claim against Monacelli, noting all the passages in question were protected statements of opinion or true.

When initially reached for comments and fact-checking for this article, Bennett’s reply, drafted by his lawyers, noted his then-pending case against Dallas Weekly and said, “Let me caution you to avoid making false statements about Mr. Bennett. Mr. Bennett is prepared to file a lawsuit against anyone in order to protect his interests. I trust that you will abide by your legal responsibilities.” 

After The Real Deal’s further correspondence with the counsel, including offering an interview, sending a list of questions and accepting a request to delay the story so Bennett could review the questions, Bennett declined to comment. 

Right of passage

Texas, and especially Tarrant County, centered around Fort Worth and one of the last major urban counties to still lean Republican, has long been an incubator for conservative politics. Bennett’s political activities, which often align with the actions of big players such as Patriot Mobile, the Christian mobile phone company, tends to support far-right legislative candidates, voter fraud investigations and the push for more conservative school boards, placing him in the thick of modern conservative politics. 

“Monty plays in an interesting space,” said Christopher Tackett, a Texas campaign finance expert who has tracked Bennett’s donations. “There are times when his motivation comes from, ‘we’re gonna make money,’ and it also comes from, ‘we’re going to seize power and disrupt things broadly.’”

Bennett’s support of conservative causes — he contributed to his twin brother’s Matt’s religious organization, Christian Union, donating a three-story Victorian near Brown University — expanded considerably after the pipeline campaign, including robust support for Donald Trump’s White House bids and for Texas governor Greg Abbott. 

He’s lately focused his efforts on the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Many of his donations have often supported the same causes and candidates as Empower Texans, the far-right group, funded primarily through Big Oil money from industry players such as Timothy Dunn and Farris and Dan Wilks, which has been instrumental in tilting districts further right, in part by running primary challengers. Candidates and causes which have earned Bennett’s support include Jonathan Stickland, a “lib-baiting troll,” per Texas Monthly, famous for far-right views and killing legislation.

Bennett’s donations flow through a web of LLCs, such as Violet Verbena LLC (which gave $210,000 to Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick in 2018 alone), and By Dartmore LP, which gave $100,000 to Our Conservative Texas Future, a vehicle created to support Lance Gooden, the former state representative who helped get legislation passed in Austin to protect the Lazy W ranch. 

Since there’s no donation limit in Texas, Tackett interpreted Bennett’s use of LLCs to channel donations as a means to create the image of broad support around candidates and causes, not just “a handful of rich white dudes wanting to impose control on everything going on around them.”

Truth has become a casualty in today’s media world.
Monty Bennett

Gooden has introduced legislation beneficial to the hotelier’s interests and causes, including the Small Business Comeback Act, which included additional relief for franchisees, and proposed legislation that would allow the Justice Department to sue China, which Bennett has advocated for. (Gooden’s office did not respond to a request for comment.) 

Bennett has cultivated many longtime allies in addition to Gooden. 

Aaron Harris, who led the advocacy group Direct Action Texas, was brought on after the 2015 Tarrant Regional Water District elections to investigate possible voting fraud involved in the races where Bennett’s candidates had lost (Harris previously ran the Bennett-funded political consulting firm Grassroots Groundgame, LLC). 

In 2016, Harris’ investigations into voter fraud, which he called “the largest election fraud case Texas has ever seen” and “the tip of the iceberg” during an October presentation at a Tea Party group in Fort Worth, would lead to four Hispanic women being accused of forging signatures on mail-in ballot applications, with one being charged with a second-degree felony.

Harris’s work would inspire Texas state legislators to make mail-in ballot fraud a ​​state jail felony, and he would later serve as Rep. Gooden’s chief of staff. Last June, he founded Texans for Education Rights, an organization that counts Bennett as a board member. In February, Texas Monthly profiled a failed effort by the organization to “route taxpayer money to private schools around the state.”

Bennett’s interest in education didn’t end there. Last year, he became involved in funding races for local school boards (in districts where his children do not attend), part of a previously unheard-of wave of funding for such races that made national news

“Many of our schools have unfortunately been taken over by ideologues who care more about pushing their outlandish agendas than in providing an excellent education to our kids,” Bennett said in a statement to the Texas Tribune. 

Rachel Wall, vice president of Texas Bipartisan Alliance, a parents group that formed in response to conservative funding of school board candidates, believes Bennett and his ilk are using critical race theory and transgender issues as “dog whistles,” with their real focus being deteriorating school quality in these destination districts to eventually create a case for more charters in the area. She said these races used to be nonpartisan, but the flood of funding and mailers has helped brand “conservative” candidates who have captured more votes; pushing back feels like “fighting with our hands behind our backs.”

Bennett has engaged in many political battles, and won quite a few. He’s talked about defending those who are misunderstood or ignored, including himself. During a meeting of a local Republican group last March, hosted by a former state senator, Konni Burton, who received more than $33,000 from him in donations, he recounted his experience being at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, which convinced him that the media focused on the “outlandish and outrageous” and had an ideological filter. 

“It’s happened to me a hundred times,” he said. “They’ll take something out of context or just the worst thing and put it in the worst way. And you know what? We’re all just sick of it.”

One thing he doesn’t seem sick of is the fight.

“The mistake most people make is in assigning nefarious motives to Monty Bennett,” Harris told D Magazine during the height of the pipeline fight. “People don’t understand that, with him, what you see is what you get. His business interests are not affected by what he is doing [politically]. His opponents have been trying to find his pain threshold. They can’t.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated that Monty Bennett had sued D Magazine. Bennett sued Dallas Weekly and a freelance journalist for libel in 2021, but not D Magazine.