Mayor Sylvester Turner on Thursday launched an internal investigation into allegations made by the city’s former housing director, who accused the mayor of influencing a competitive process by allocating millions in federal Hurricane Harvey relief funds to a favored developer.
In a Thursday statement, Turner said he instructed City Attorney Arturo Michel to review the allegations “to determine whether there were any illegalities, fraud, conflicts of interests, violations of procedures, practices, and policies.”
“My administration works extremely hard to avoid potential conflicts of interest, and I have not conducted business differently than any former mayor in the city of Houston,” the statement read.
Turner added that the findings would be made public once the investigation is completed.
During Tuesday’s city council housing committee meeting, former housing director Tom McCasland blasted the mayor over his decision to distribute more than $15 million in federal funds to the Huntington at Bay Area project as part of the city’s Harvey Multifamily Program — money that comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and is intended to help replace damaged housing lost in Hurricane Harvey.
McCasland said the mayor’s decision would grant the city 274 fewer units than other projects recommended by housing officials.
Attached to the chosen project is a company named Harbor Venture Group, which is run by the mayor’s former law partner Barry Barnes, and a partner at Barnes’ firm, Jermaine Thomas, according to the Houston Chronicle.
“I’m being forced to participate in a charade that this was a competitive process when I know it was not a competitive process,” McCasland told council members.
Turner denied any wrongdoing and quickly terminated McCasland by Tuesday afternoon. By Wednesday, Turner named Keith Bynam as the city’s interim housing director.
Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, said the investigation was Turner’s best option since McCasland made his allegations in such a public way.
“Cooperating and encouraging an investigation like this is the smartest political play and the most transparent, ethical decision that the mayor could’ve made,” he said. “The mayor has to address it.”