Moncrief Family Values

It was 1986, and Tarrant County Judge Mike Moncrief wanted a keepsake--something by which he could remember his just-deceased grandfather, the legendary Texas wildcatter W.A. "Monty" Moncrief.

W.A. "Tex" Moncrief Jr., Mike's uncle and the executor of Monty's estate, allowed Mike and his brother to go through some of the old man's jewelry and watches.

But, Mike recalls bitterly, they got that chance only after their cousins--Tex's children--had picked over Monty's belongings. By then, most of their grandfather's cherished possessions were gone. "They took everything," says Moncrief, of his cousins. "By the time I got there, I didn't see any of the things that I had seen him wear, the things that [you] wanted, that would have reminded [you] of him."

When Mike complained to his uncle, he recalls, Tex simply told him, "I'm the executor, and I will do what I choose."

Three generations of such relations have turned a simmering, private family conflict into an angry, public civil war. The Moncriefs of Fort Worth--one of Texas' mythic oil families--today stand revealed as a clan bitterly divided.

This past March, Mike Moncrief, now a Texas state senator, filed a blunt suit in state court in Fort Worth against his uncle Tex and two of his cousins. In the suit, Moncrief and his brother--whose father died in 1970--accuse their kin of trying to rob them of their rightful share of inherited oil and gas properties.

Tex and his sons fired back, filing a counterclaim accusing the senator and his brother of "maliciously telling persons in the Fort Worth community that Tex Moncrief had allegedly 'stolen,' or 'embezzled' property from them."

At stake is a fortune. Its present size is unknown, but after Monty's death, Forbes magazine put a price tag of $200 million on the patriarch's estate.

Tex--who, unlike Mike's father Richard, worked closely with Monty Moncrief in the family oil business--claims the old wildcatter intended to share half his oil and gas properties with him.

Mike claims Monty and his wife instead intended to divide the assets equally among their seven grandchildren.

The conflict also has raised fresh questions about what prompted a dramatic September 1994 raid by 64 federal agents on the Moncrief Building in downtown Fort Worth, where Tex and his sons run their business. In the raid, carried out seven months before the family conflict erupted in the Texas courts, armed IRS agents seized 300 boxes of documents, more than a dozen file cabinets, and an entire computer system. The agents are reportedly probing allegations that Tex and his sons committed tax fraud.

Mike Moncrief denies any responsibility for the raid--"no one was more surprised than me"--but cites it as reason to question the ability of his uncle, now 75, to continue overseeing the family's shared oil properties.

The senator knows that a messy family court battle will prove embarrassing in a town where oil families such as the Basses have always worked to keep their internal conflicts private. "We have done everything we possibly could to avoid having to file this lawsuit, to keep this dirty laundry from being aired publicly," he says. "No one likes to do that. I will say, politically, I probably should have run from it."

Yet Moncrief, 51, feels strongly about getting his side across. He devoted two hours at the height of the legislative session to an interview in Austin with the Observer. He has hired a Fort Worth public relations firm to handle queries about the litigation.

Tex Moncrief did not return calls for this story. One member of his large legal team, Washington lawyer Robert Bennett (who represents President Clinton in the Whitewater case), says he has advised Moncrief not to talk to the press. But Tex did grant an interview to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which had published an editorial condemning the IRS for its high-profile raid.

"What's behind this is simple greed," Tex told the newspaper about his nephew's suit, in a lengthy story published earlier this month. "If it wasn't for my mother and father and me doing [our] part to keep things up, [Mike] wouldn't own anything now. Not one damn thing."

Money obviously ranks high on the list of reasons for the fight.
Mike Moncrief, who admits he was willing to let his uncle manage the family business for years--and even serve as financial guardian for the senator's incapacitated younger sister--has been drawing almost $1 million annually from the inherited assets, according to Jerry Goodwin, an accountant in his Fort Worth business office. Mike believes he should be getting more. If Mike prevails in court, the Senator's income could double, and his one-seventh share of the estate (based on the $200 million Forbes estimate) would be $28 million, rather than $14 million.