By Brian Chasnoff
When Henry Muñoz III agreed to raise funds for nonprofits by stepping into a boxing ring in 2009, he did so in typically unprecedented and over-the-top fashion.
Dubbing himself “the Fighting Fox,” he trained for nine months to gain an edge, then marshaled a mascot, a limousine and an entourage of women to accompany him to the bout, where he was beaten yet proceeded to dance, black-eyed and bruised, to the music of mariachis, winning over the crowd.
And so it goes outside of the ring.
As CEO of Kell Muñoz Architects Inc., a local firm flush with public contracts, Muñoz over three decades has transformed the company into one of the city’s most prominent and influential.
Not an architect, Muñoz, 51, has described himself as a “very good salesperson.” He cultivates the image of a stylish maven in Latino culture and design and has made his name by donating prolifically to politicians, serving on an array of civic boards and staging flashy presentations in fights for lucrative public projects.
The latest: a bid to manage construction work for nearly all of the San Antonio Independent School District’s $515 million bond.
Muñoz won the contract, along with $12.5 million in fees. But critics say he doesn’t fight fair and his over-the-top tactics can go over the line when he plays politics with taxpayer funds.
“The sad part of it is that he’s so talented that he doesn’t have to cross the line,” said one City Hall insider who requested anonymity. “That’s the problem with Henry. He pushes it to the limits.”
The son of a labor organizer, Muñoz was plugged into political circles from birth and since has grown into a heavyweight in Democratic fundraising.
For the SAISD bond campaign, Muñoz hosted a fundraiser at the luxurious downtown Club Giraud, where an array of architectural and engineering firms, some of which have teamed with him in the past, contributed a sum of more than $100,000.
Muñoz’s firm gave the most: $10,000.
Such fundraising talent discourages some from criticizing Muñoz publicly. Said one former elected official: “I would certainly count on him for support in the future if I ever ran.”
What’s clear is that Muñoz’s long career blending public service and private enterprise has been bruised by controversy from the beginning; his lofty ambitions for himself and the region at times have soared above what’s possible; and his appetites for status and success at times have clouded his judgment.
Muñoz betrays little regret.
“I’m not going to change who I am,” he said. “The democratic process or politics, maybe we have a bad feeling about it in the world today, but I wasn’t raised that way. My father and my mother raised me to believe that democracy was beautiful and that’s what made this country different.”
He added, “Realistically, there are things that everybody brings to the table. You have votes, you have dollars, and you have influence. I have my voice, and I have a right to that.”
Muñoz was 6 when he rode a donkey from the Rio Grande Valley to Austin in a march with farmworkers, his father and other labor leaders, including César Chávez. The workers were seeking a $1.25 minimum wage, but then-Gov. John Connally refused to meet with them when they reached the Capitol.
In the battle for civil rights, Muñoz’s late father, Henry “the Fox” Muñoz, often employed tricks, said Linda Chavez-Thompson, a protégé.
“That’s why they called him the Fox,” Chavez-Thompson said. “He was shrewd. I don’t want to use the word conniving, but he had to be. You almost had to keep one step ahead.”
In the early 1970s, Hispanics at the city’s water system struggled with racism on the job. Strikes were illegal, but union meetings were not.
“So (the Fox) said, ‘Let’s make it a 24-hour meeting, three or four days in a row,’” Chavez-Thompson said.
Muñoz absorbed his father’s strategies.
“He felt like sometimes you had to fight,” he said, “and sometimes you had to negotiate to open doors.”
When Muñoz was 9, his parents sent him to work as a page at the Capitol, where two years later he met future ally Nelson Wolff, then a freshman state representative and now Bexar County judge. He soon was flying on state planes as a special page to Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes.
Years later, the all-Anglo architectural firm JonesKell hired Muñoz with a clear aim: Forge a bond with the community.
An avalanche of civic engagements followed: Muñoz became founding president of Texas Public Radio, chairman of a hosting committee for the Mexican president and board member of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, among others.
But his most promising opportunity was around the corner. Through family connections, Muñoz obtained a box seat beside Ann Richards at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, where he won her over.
Connected, Muñoz ably raised funds for Richards’ primary and general election campaigns.
As governor, Richards appointed him to the Texas High Speed Rail Authority, on which Muñoz replaced Connally, and then to the powerful three-member Texas Transportation Commission, the first time a Hispanic had risen to that post.
At 31, Muñoz wielded billions of dollars for the Texas Department of Transportation. But the born fighter was heading for a fall.
Turmoil at TxDOT
Commissioner Muñoz was an advocate for San Antonio and South Texas. Yet public records and interviews also paint him as wasteful, reckless and eager to use his position for political gain.
His missteps angered his colleagues, including Richards, sources say.
“He was forced to resign,” said a former TxDOT official who requested anonymity.
Muñoz disputes this.
“I wanted so badly to come home,” he said. “You would have looked at me, and I’m 32 or whatever, and I’m a very powerful person. And you’d say, ‘He’s got the world by the nuts. Why does he want to leave that job?’ But I was so incredibly unhappy.
“I was gay,” Muñoz said, “and I wanted to come out.”
At the time, he was married to Julie Moke of the prominent Centeno family, former owners of a now-closed grocery store chain. Muñoz and Moke later divorced.
As commissioner, Muñoz pushed for the border region to receive its share of transportation funding. He oversaw the International Relations Office, pressing for free trade and the construction of toll roads and international bridges.
“He is a visionary and exuberant,” said Jane Hickie, then-director of the Office of State-Federal Relations.
But Hickie said Muñoz’s ambitions often were unrealistic. An internal TxDOT audit states they also could transcend state business.
According to the audit, Muñoz flew to Washington and met with a USAA lobbyist at a time when his firm was designing a building for the local insurance company. And his state office was providing a Mexican construction business with “insider information” as the company lavished Muñoz with aircraft, hotels, meals and receptions.
Nights in prestigious hotels weren’t unusual.
“If you know Henry Muñoz,” Hickie said, “the first thought in his mind is not, ‘Where is the nearest Motel 6?’”
As the office slipped into “turmoil,” Muñoz’s staff “pursued several ideas about how to obtain publicity” for him, the audit states.
“It always went off into the direction of him wanting to be governor some day,” said the former official, “wanting to be on boards and committees of some type of influence.”
Muñoz for “political reasons” was allowed to bow out – Richards’ campaign staff needed his help for another fundraiser, the official said.
And the fall did little to dim his influence at home.
Less than a year after Muñoz’s resignation, then-Mayor Wolff chose him as chairman of a foundation to restore the Alameda Theater, a high-profile project that would only grow in scope as Muñoz began envisioning a museum to showcase Latino arts, history and culture.
“What we are attempting to do,” he declared in 1997, “is build a place that is about the American experience.”
Muñoz’s clout has only expanded in the ensuing years – in politics, philanthropy and his profession.
He dined with Fidel Castro in Cuba and raised funds at his own Monte Vista mansion for presidential hopefuls, including Bill and Hillary Clinton.
As Rey Feo in 1998, Muñoz wore a crown of real diamonds and amethysts after raising more than $250,000 in scholarship funds, a record sum. He appeared as king before the City Council with an entourage that included a then-councilwoman.
And his firm has thrived. With more than 90 percent of its projects in the public sector, Kell Muñoz has helped shape the city while sustaining a reputation for capable work.
But some wonder if Muñoz’s compulsion to win has clouded his judgment.
In 2002, his name surfaced in affidavits in a scandal that brought down architect Louis Cruz and trustees in the Alamo Community College District.
In competition with Kell Muñoz and other firms, Cruz admitted he paid bribes for a $1.2 million project at the district. In an affidavit, he mentions Muñoz as “making offers” to trustees, who sought kickbacks from architects and contractors.
In another affidavit, former trustee Robert “Tinker” Garza says Muñoz met him at Ruth’s Chris Steak House to talk about the project.
“Henry agreed to hire the team of contractors that we wanted if Henry got the project,” Garza said.
Muñoz denies any involvement. He never was accused of a crime.
Two years later, Muñoz sought to add color and culture to the San Antonio skyline. Deploying mariachis to play for the City Council, he sold officials on a bid to design and build a convention center hotel in partnership with FaulknerUSA.
Already burdened by lawsuits and liens, FaulknerUSA instead ditched the Latino-themed design and built a disappointing beige behemoth.
In 2008, Muñoz’s methods caught the attention of the American Institute of Architects.
When city staffers recommended another firm to renovate the Lila Cockrell Theatre, Muñoz criticized the selection process and lobbied council members for a second chance.
Charles Johns, ***SEE CORRECTION*** president of the local AIA chapter at the time, wrote then-Mayor Phil Hardberger warning the process was becoming “politicized.”
Muñoz withdrew his challenge. According to Johns, the incident prompted City Manager Sheryl Sculley to revamp the process and enlist the AIA to play a role in selections.
“Lobbying is not supposed to be part of the selection process,” said Johns, an architect with Fisher Heck. “It’s supposed to be qualifications-based, and everybody’s supposed to play by the same rules.”
‘Hate to lose’
About two years ago, Muñoz’s ambitions caught up with him.
After 13 years of nurturing the Museo Alameda to life, assembling a world-record-breaking number of mariachis to play for its extravagant opening in 2007, he stepped down as its chairman.
Although he’d forged a rare affiliation with the Smithsonian Institution and placed a lien against his own house to secure a line of credit for the museum, Muñoz left it on the brink of financial ruin.
Literally sick from stress, he underwent surgery for an ulcer.
“Henry is overambitious, and in that project, he over-bit,” Wolff said. “Henry wants the best of everything and thinks he can do everything. He pushes himself awful, awful hard.
“I really believe that Henry, obviously, needs his firm to be successful,” said Wolff, who supported Muñoz’s successful bid in 2008 to become chairman of the VIA Metropolitan Transit board. “But he also has a deep, abiding care about the community, more so than the buttoned-down establishment.”
These days, Muñoz is trying to sell the idea that he’s not a villain.
Critics allege the SAISD bond contract was fixed. Muñoz says his bid with another firm, Jacobs, was above-board. His team won, he says, because they worked harder than the competition, attending a public meeting that outlined the district’s needs and working through the night to prepare a presentation.
“They lost, fair and square,” Muñoz said. “I hate to lose. I don’t like losing. I don’t win every one. I give my best effort. Don’t you want someone who’s going to work their ass off on your behalf?”