Mayor Sylvester Turner promised on Wednesday to release information about a city-run affordable housing deal his former housing director called a “charade” meant to funnel $15 million to a favored developer.
The mayor denied any wrongdoing and defended the process of awarding federal Harvey recovery funds for one project against the recommendation of housing officials, suggesting that while a formal procurement process would solicit bids and have stricter regulations to select a winner, this process for awarding the federal funding allows for the mayor to use his discretion.
The mayor also told council members they can expect more information in the coming days about the process, and about former housing director Tom McCasland’s involvement.
“This was not a procurement,” Turner said. “(McCasland) says that himself. There were no bids. Nothing illicit, none of that. And he’s also said what was done was within my discretion.”
“He did not talk about the internal operations of that department, and I anticipate that that will be coming before you next week,” the mayor added.
McCasland was fired last week after accusing the Turner administration of running an unethical selection process to award $15 million in federal funding to a preferred affordable housing developer at four times the cost per unit. The project selected by Turner would create 88 affordable housing units in a single project, while housing officials recommended four projects to create 362 affordable units at $16.2 million, according to McCasland.
In testimony to city council last week, McCasland accused Turner of “bankrolling a certain developer to the detriment of working families who need affordable homes.”
State documents show a company run by the mayor’s former law partner, Barry Barnes, as a co-general partner and developer on the site, the Houston Chronicle reported last week. That company, Harbor Venture Group, also lists a partner at Barnes’ firm named Jermaine Thomas as a principal. Turner has not been with the law firm since he was elected mayor in 2015.
Members of Houston’s City Council were caught off guard by McCasland’s accusations, with few follow-up questions for the now-former director at last week’s meeting.
On Tuesday’s Houston Matters, District K Council member Martha Castex-Tatum said she was “shocked” at McCasland’s testimony, but ultimately didn’t find the mayor’s actions concerning.
“I did read the 77-page document that accompanied his message, and I did not find anything that was super troubling to me,” she said.
Turner has denied any wrongdoing, and instructed the city attorney’s office to review the claims. City Attorney Arturo Michel is appointed by the mayor, but Turner said Michel will have full authority and discretion to conduct the investigation.
At Wednesday’s council meeting, At-large Council member Michael Kubosh called for City Controller Chris Brown to investigate the accusations.
“It puts a cloud over us right now and I want this gone,” Kubosh told City Controller Chris Brown. “I was hoping your department would have some influence in this in some way.”
The controller told council members his office does not have authority to conduct an investigation of this nature, and pointed to the city’s Office of Inspector General to investigate misconduct allegations. However, Brown did call for more transparency, and said that he wants to make more information available online to the public.
Turner pushed back on Kubosh’s questions during the council meeting.
“Council member Kubosh, you don’t have the luxury of just throwing stuff out without having the information,” Turner said. “You don’t have the luxury of trying to cast some sort of negative aspersion without having all the information. Because information is important.”
District F Council member Tiffany Thomas said she looked forward to the information the mayor promised to release, and cautioned her fellow council members to wait for all of the facts to come in.
“Let us do the hard work of getting the information so we can restore the trust in our housing program and our city and the seats that we sit in,” Thomas said.