A private jet with a custom gray paint job and the Gothams LLC logo on the side, resting on the runway.
Gothams' jet on the runway at Austin-Bergstrom Airport in September 2023 (Seth the Spotter)

Did an Operation Lone Star Contractor Fly Tennessee’s Governor to Eagle Pass?

Flight records indicate one of the governors at a Texas press event may have flown there on a private jet owned by a major border contractor, whose CEO is also an Abbott donor.


On Sunday, 13 Republican governors flocked to Eagle Pass to stand in support of Governor Greg Abbott’s border security showdown with the feds. It appears one of them may have hitched a ride on a private jet owned by an Austin contractor that has cashed in on the taxpayer windfall generated by Operation Lone Star. 

Early Sunday morning, a private plane owned by Gothams LLC flew from Austin-Bergstrom Airport to Nashville—where Tennessee Governor Bill Lee resides—and then flew down to Maverick County’s airport, touching down just before noon, according to the flight tracking website Flightaware. Governor Lee was among the attendees of Abbott’s Eagle Pass border event, which included a state police briefing and a press conference that began shortly before 3 p.m. 

Gothams has received tens of millions of taxpayer dollars via Operation Lone Star contracts. Gothams CEO Matthew Michelsen has also become a major donor to the Texas governor. 

Poncho Nevárez @poncho_nevarez posts on X: Lot of nice planes in Eagle Pass today. What’s cooking?
Poncho Nevárez spotted several private jets, including Gothams’, at the Maverick County airport. (X.com / @poncho_nevarez)

Former Eagle Pass state Representative Poncho Nevarez posted a photo on X of the private planes—including Gothams’ jet—that were assembled on the tarmac at the Maverick County airport during the event. He told the Observer it was his understanding Lee flew on Gothams’ plane. 

Governor Abbott’s office, Governor Lee’s office, and Gothams officials did not immediately respond to calls and emails requesting comment. It’s not clear who paid for the Nashville to Maverick County flight.

The multiple-leg journey to Eagle Pass totaled about 8 hours, flight records show. The jet flew back to Nashville after Abbott’s press conference before returning to Austin Sunday night. 

Abbott staged the event at the public park right on the border in Eagle Pass that the state has commandeered as part of an escalating standoff with the Biden Administration and federal border agents. “As opposed to detaining illegal immigrants, Biden has let them all loose, with no ability to accurately determine their whereabouts,” Abbott declared on Sunday. “We’ve seen the catastrophic consequences of Joe Biden’s open border policy.”

Like a warzone movie set, the backdrop of state military vehicles, soldiers, and razor wire made for a prime photo opp for Abbott and his fellow GOP governors—enough to overlook the current lack of migrant crossings in the area. 

The gubernatorial shindig in Eagle Pass was just the latest example of how Abbott’s incessant promotion of his border agenda has turned the state government into an arm of his campaign politicking machine.

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It’s also become another source of pay-to-play politics. Since launching his Operation Lone Star in 2021, the sprawling border operation has been funded with several billion dollars in state taxpayer funds—a large part of which have gone to private contractors hired to help run the immigration enforcement regime. 

One of the largest firms is Gothams, an Austin-based disaster operations outfit that has been running a tent facility in Jim Hogg County, where many of the migrants arrested by state police are processed and temporarily held before getting transported to state jails.

Texas awarded Gothams a $43 million purchase order to build and operate the facility back in 2021. The state’s contract bidding requirements have been suspended under Abbott’s border disaster declaration. Last August, the state extended Gothams’ operations of the Jim Hogg facility for 2024 at an estimated total cost of $26 million, according to purchase order records. 

A small jet on display on a tarmac, an with umbrella-covered seating area nearby.,
A Pilatus Pc-24 jet on display at an air show. (Shutterstock)

In the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Michelsen and his company moved from California to Austin, where Gothams had secured what would become huge business providing the state with testing services, medical supplies, and antibody infusion sites. 

The disaster business has been good for Gothams. In total, the state has paid Gothams over $600 million for contracted services for COVID and border operations since 2021, according to government spending records. 

Michelsen has returned the favor to Abbott, giving a total of $350,000 to the governor’s campaign in 2022 and 2023, campaign finance records show. On top of that, he gave $100,000 in November to the Republican State Leadership Committee’s Texas PAC, which funds GOP state legislative races. Gothams also gave $25,000 to the governor’s inauguration ceremony committee last January. 

Last March, the company bought a new executive jet—with a custom gray paint job and Gothams’ logo—that reportedly costs up to $9.5 million. The jet comfortably seats six passengers, according to its manufacturer, and costs $2,600 per hour to fly.