The Insider

All in the Family
Over the past 15 years, the contentious, opinionated Hotze clan of West Houston has carved out a high political profile on conservative issues, with various members championing anti-abortion efforts, campaigning against gay rights and pushing an unsuccessful initiative to force city council to seek voter approval for tax and fee increases.

Now the two youngest of Margaret and Ernest Hotze's eight children are suing the four eldest for "oppression" in the context of a closely held corporation, the family-owned Compressor Engineering Corporation (CECO), which Ernest headed until his death in 1995.

The Hotzes are no strangers to media coverage, but previous exposure mostly involved political issues rather than family feuds. Mother Margaret was a city council candidate and organizer of the 1985 "Straight Slate" to promote conservative family values and counter the influence of gays in city government. The oldest of her sons, Dr. Steven Hotze, is a GOP kingmaker and political action committee director.

Another brother, former congressional candidate and GOP activist Jim Hotze, is not involved in the latest litigation; he left CECO 18 years ago to be a CPA. He calls it "an unfortunate little chapter" in the family history -- and a painful one. "I think if you had a choice of this happening or going to get a root canal," says Jim. "you'd probably go and get the root canal."

Jim professes amusement that people lump the Hotzes together. "Forever and ever, everybody's thought we all get together for breakfast and we agree on everything." The reality, he says, "is we have a fair share of differences of opinion. We're not monolithic."

That seems an understatement, judging by the lawsuit filed by 35-year-old Gretchen Hotze Heerensperger and 30-year-old Chris Hotze in Fort Bend County early this year. They seek unspecified damages from Bruce, Mark, Rick and Steven Hotze. Bruce, one of the organizers of the recent, unsuccessful city tax initiative, is the CEO of the company, and Mark and Rick are salaried executives.

The specifics of the younger Hotzes' grievances against their brothers are difficult to discern from the broadly worded suit. A deposition of Gretchen indicates that one point of conflict involves a transfer of CECO stock to the children of Rick Hotze shortly after Ernest's death. She also complains that the older brothers did not see her as an equal in managing CECO's affairs. After her father's death, says Gretchen, "I was getting signals from my brothers, saying, 'Hey, we're not going to take care of you.' So I thought to myself, I'd better get involved, and real quick."

A family acquaintance says that Gretchen, the sole sister, has always been ignored by her brothers. Age also plays into the dispute. "It's an interesting thing between older siblings and younger siblings," says Jim, who falls between the factions. "There's a lot of age difference and sometimes not as good communication as people should have."

The suit includes a declaration by the plaintiffs that they "love and care for the defendants." During the deposition, that statement prompted defendants' attorney Fred Hagans to ask Gretchen, "Did you feel that you needed to file a lawsuit to tell your brothers that you loved them?"

Citing her experience as a mother of seven children, she replied, "If my child is out playing in the street, and I pull them in the yard and spank them, I would consider that an act of love. And along those same lines I can stand here before all my brothers and say, yes, this was an act of love." Tough love, to be sure.

Gretchen testified that the suit was filed in Fort Bend County rather than Harris, where most of the family lives and the business operates, in hopes that it might slip past the media: "We would be able to protect the family name, my mother, from any negative coverage." That is apparently not a large concern to the four brothers, whose attorney has filed a motion to transfer the case to Harris County.

Gretchen also recounted a late-night visit to her home earlier this year by her mother, who "out of the blue and very out of character" popped in equipped with a pen and legal pad to weigh the pros and cons of the dispute and otherwise dissuade Gretchen from the lawsuit. At one point, Margaret tried explaining to her daughter how Hotzes usually work out their disputes. According to Gretchen, the spiel went like this: "Boys will be boys, and I've seen these boys wrestle and they've always made up and they're good friends afterwards. They can fight it out and wrestle ... [but] you're just too sensitive."

Gretchen testified she rejected that advice and decided to go ahead with the suit, hoping to convince her mother that her sons are manipulating her. The breaking point, Gretchen says, occurred when the stock was transferred to Rick's children, using the recently bereaved Margaret as signatory.

"What was so critical about this transfer of stock?" asked Gretchen rhetorically during the deposition. "It smells. And I adore my mother, but I don't think she was thinking clearly at the time." Gretchen also claimed some CECO functionaries were uncomfortable with their roles in allegedly postdating the stock transfer to make it appear the transaction had been approved before Ernest's death.

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