Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner

Blowup Between Mayor and Housing Director Triggers Fraud Investigation over Harvey Funds

Tuesday, City of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Houston Housing and Community Development Director Tom McCasland got into a verbal brawl over alleged improprieties in the distribution of Harvey relief funds.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner photographed in February of 2020.

The trigger was the award of $15 million to build a Clear Lake multi-family housing complex in which the Mayor’s former law partner is a co-developer. (Here is the group’s full application.)

The Mayor overrode the recommendations of McCasland and his staff, who pointed out that $16.2 million could have created four times the number of affordable units in poorer neighborhoods. Those projects all scored higher in the competition for funding.

General Land Office Response

Brittany Eck, a spokesperson for the Texas General Land Office (GLO), issued a statement within hours. She said, “The GLO is looking into the serious allegations of fraud or corruption regarding projects by the City of Houston’s Harvey Multifamily Program. The GLO is responsible for ensuring all money allocated through the Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) are spent appropriately. These projects and funds are intended to be utilized to aid the greatest number of low-income Texans as possible.”

Eck continued: “As such, we will re-review all requests for funding draws allocated to the City of Houston by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The GLO will coordinate with HUD and other investigative entities to determine what actions should follow regarding these allegations. Fraud has no place in helping Texans recover from disaster.”

She concluded, “Anyone with information relating to potential fraud, waste, and/or abuse is encouraged to report it by calling 1-844-893-8937 or emailing cdr@recovery.texas.gov.”

Mayor’s Response

According to multiple news reports and a press release from the Mayor’s Office, Turner denied specific knowledge of the deal with his former law partner. He claimed there was no impropriety, that McCasland had raised no objections to the deal, and that he (Turner) had the right as Mayor to override McCasland’s objections.

The Mayor also asserted he was trying “to place affordable housing projects throughout the City…” Finally, he claimed he severed all ties with his former law partner before assuming his position as Mayor.

McCasland’s Point of View

McCasland insisted this was not the first time the Mayor’s office interfered. The Houston Chronicle, which broke the story, said “McCasland acknowledged the Mayor has the authority to overturn staff recommendations, but McCasland argued that in this case it represented a subversion of a competitive process to benefit one applicant.

McCasland said he was not alleging fraud, but said the pattern of behavior was emblematic of a broader problem in Turner’s administration, a “do-it-because-I-said-so” management style. McCasland did say that drives out public servants dedicated to integrity and breeds a “culture for corruption.”

Further, the Chronicle article quoted McCasland as saying he briefed the Mayor August 17 and again on August 24.

McCasland said the Clear Lake complex (Huntington at Bay Area) ranked 8th out of 12 proposals, and had the lowest percentage (60%) of its units reserved for low income tenants.

Here’s a 77-page document that catalogs nine months of correspondence between McCasland, MST (Mayor Sylvester Turner) and their staffs regarding the controversial project.

Note McCasland’s comments on page 4. He claims “The outcome of that process was predetermined before the funding opportunity was even issued.”

If you don’t read anything else, skip to the last page. It’s an email from McCasland to the Mayor dated September 17. In it, he summarizes all his objections to the Clear Lake deal. That would seem to contradict the Mayor’s claim that McCasland did not register his objections.

Mayor Fires McCasland

McCasland said to City Council, “I am being forced to participate in a charade that this was a competitive process, when I know it was not a competitive process. That’s the problem here and I’m being forced to ask my teammates to participate in that charade and that is not something that we can do and that is not something that we will do.”

According to those who watched the gripping testimony in City Council, it was like watching someone commit career suicide. By the end of the day, the Mayor issued a terse press release. He denied McCasland’s allegations, said he had lost confidence in McCasland, and that it was time to move on.

Why All of a Sudden?

The big question is this: Why now? McCasland and his embattled department have been under fire for years:

Coming forward when he did – as he did – almost felt like a Law & Order episode in which the DA flipped a witness with a promise of immunity. Some veteran City Hall observers felt McCasland was being unusually frank and fearless for someone at the center of such a huge mess. If there was a pattern of ethics violations, why wait years before objecting to them?

Mayor Likely Overstepped Authority

Both McCasland and the Mayor said the Mayor had the right to overturn staff decisions. But Eck pointed out the Mayor did not have the power to “rewrite” the Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA) to favor one applicant; any project selected must meet federal regulations.

She said that had the City written the NOFA to favor affluent neighborhoods, and had HUD and the GLO approved it that way, there would be no problem at this point. However, the City did not do that.

From McCasland’s report and the documentation provided, it appears the City’s award went against the scoring system laid out in the published NOFA, resulting in a competition that was not full, fair and open. The result led applicants to believe their projects would be considered against one criterion when other unknown criteria were actually utilized. 

We now know the City awarded the project to a former partner of the Mayor in a high-income area…ignoring the posted and approved scoring system. In that regard, the Mayor evidently overstepped his authority.

This was not the first time the presence of the Mayor’s former partner in a deal has raised eyebrows and questions. The Houston Chronicle reported in 2018 that several city council members complained about the optics of the partner’s role as a subcontractor for a firm hired to find Harvey victims.

What Next?

The GLO has been in touch with HUD, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, Gov. Greg Abbott’s office and the Department of Public Safety, according to Eck.

KTRK’s Ted Oberg said DPS would only be involved to investigate criminal matters.

Oberg also reported Wednesday that Chris Brown, the city’s controller, said, “This week’s revelations underscore an ongoing pattern concerning procurement processes and a continued lack of transparency at City Hall.”

Brown, who audits City projects, continued, “In the past several months alone, our office has been denied procurement documents required to conduct an audit of the Strategic Procurement Department and were told to stop all work on a financial transparency project that would bring much-needed insight into the city’s spending practices. Taxpayers deserve a city government that is transparent and above reproach. Unfortunately, recent events suggest that the city is falling short of that goal.”

Posted by Bob Rehak on 9/22/2021

1485 Days since Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.