Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday that neither he nor anyone on his executive staff had prior knowledge of a federal public corruption case involving one of his top aides, who pleaded guilty early last week and subsequently resigned, according to a report from the Houston Chronicle.
William-Paul Thomas, who has worked as the mayor’s liaison to the Houston City Council since before Turner was elected in 2015, pleaded guilty July 25 in U.S. District Court and admitted to participating in a conspiracy to accept a cash bribe, according to the Chronicle, which cited an anonymous source.
A charging document unsealed Wednesday in federal court shows Thomas was offered thousands of dollars to use his position in city government to help a Houston business owner reclassify a bar as a restaurant so it could circumvent COVID-19 restrictions in 2020 and also to help the same business owner expedite a building inspection and the issuance of an occupancy permit for a different restaurant and bar.
The businesses and owner involved are not named in the charging document. Thomas’ plea deal remains sealed by the court.
“On July 6, 2020, BUSINESSMAN 1 offered THOMAS up to $13,000 to have the necessary permit issued quickly so that COMPANY 2 could reopen,” the charging document reads. “THOMAS agreed to use his official position to pressure other officials to issue the permit quickly, all in exchange for money.”
The charging document also says Thomas was authorized to represent the mayor in his dealings with the city council, including the approval of city contracts, along with the “functioning and oversight of the various departments within the (city).”
Turner said earlier Wednesday he had not been aware of the case involving Thomas.
“No one on my executive team has been talked to or this subject has come up at all – literally,” Turner said. “… To the extent what is being reported is true, I will tell you that it will be disappointing.”
Rhonda Hawkins, the case manager for U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen, who reportedly heard Thomas’ case, said Wednesday morning the case had been sealed and she was “not at liberty to provide you any information at this point.”
When asked why Thomas’ case was sealed and if that indicates it is part of a broader case or includes publicly sensitive information, Hawkins said, “I can’t answer that question. I don’t know. … That is up to the government. The government asked the case to be sealed. It is sealed until it’s unsealed.”
Houston City Council member Michael Kubosh questioned Turner’s claim that neither the mayor nor his staffers were aware of the case involving Thomas, citing the weeklong gap between the submission of Thomas’ resignation letter and Turner’s public announcement that Thomas had left City Hall.
There also was a “buzz” about Thomas among staffers at City Hall on Monday, according to Kubosh, who said he wondered if the sealing of Thomas’ case “means something else is going on.”
“I find it hard to believe that (Turner) didn’t learn anything about it until the Chronicle released something (Tuesday night),” Kubosh said. “He already had an email he released concerning William-Paul Thomas’ resignation or retirement. Normally, if somebody’s been around City Hall for 14 years, you have a retirement party or going away. You’d have a big love fest. But this was all done silently and quietly.”
The U.S. Department of Justice announced last month it was investigating Houston’s response to illegal dumping and whether the city has discriminated against Black and Latino residents because of an alleged “failure to adequately and equitably respond” to their illegal dumping complaints. And in February, the Houston Health Department said the FBI was searching its offices while investigating “allegations concerning a Health Department marketing vendor and employee conduct.”
Turner said Wednesday he instructed the city’s human resources department to remind its 22,000 or so employees they should follow the law as well as municipal policy.
In a July 26 resignation email to Turner that was provided by his office, Thomas wrote he was retiring because of a directive from a family physician. He also said he hoped “that I have been able to make a positive and value added contribution to the team and the amazing constituents of Houston.”
“The reason in that email was for medical reasons,” Turner said Wednesday. “The only thing I can say is based on the email that was sent to me a week ago Tuesday.”