Mayor Turner Points Finger at GLO in Latest Harvey Relief Dispute

Two months after Tom McCasland publicly exposed problems in his Housing and Community Development Department (HCDD), the Texas General Land Office (GLO) released the results of its investigation of McCasland’s explosive allegations. GLO criticized HCDD on five counts. It didn’t take long for Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner to return fire.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner at Kingwood town Hall Meeting

Turner Fires Back

Turner’s office issued a press release that said in part:

“It is important to note that the GLO previously reviewed the City’s Notice of Funds Availability (NOFA) 1, 2, and 3 and took no exceptions. The GLO also reviewed and approved all program guidelines before they were sent to the city council and subsequently approved. The City has operated under the GLO-approved guidelines for all issued NOFAs and will determine if changes are needed.

“Indeed, the report does not identify any violations of law, regulations or contractual provisions, as asserted by the City during the review process. The report found no conflict of interest violations of law or regulation.”

City of Houston Mayor’s Office

In essence, Turner was saying, “We were being constantly reviewed and GLO approved everything we did.”

Difference Between Guidelines and Following Them

If you took that away from the Mayor’s statement, though, you may have drawn the wrong conclusion. It’s one thing to have GLO-approved guidelines – and another to follow them. There’s often a huge difference between the way things should operate and the way they do.

A former high-level employee of HCDD who wishes to remain anonymous, told me, “You need to understand that GLO and HUD provide the only supervision of HCDD. It’s not coming from the City or City Council.”

The relationship between HCDD, the GLO and HUD has been stormy for a long time. HCDD’s Harvey recovery programs got off to such a slow start, that HUD audited them. The audit was so critical that GLO feared the state might lose future funds from HUD; HUD explicitly stated that as a possibility. That caused the GLO to offer help and increase its supervision of HCDD. And that set the tone through 2020 when GLO tried to take back Harvey relief funds – so that GLO could distribute them itself – and the City sued to keep them.

Wednesday’s blowup was simply the latest in a long line. Let’s not ignore that. This relationship has been stormy from the start.

2019 Audit Lays Out Many of Latest Concerns

Here is the entire 34-page audit from 2019. Among the concerns at the time of that first review:

  • Houston had not drawn any funds from the Hurricane Harvey grants. The city had only submitted two requests for payment to the GLO – totaling approximately $1 million out of more than $1.2 billion. GLO rejected both requests as incomplete.
  • HUD had concerns regarding “the city’s expenditure progress and overall financial management processes.”
  • The City’s compliance website did not meet HUD’s requirements.
  • Houston was operating at half staff (59 full-time employees; 61 more needed) and had turnover in two key positions.
  • “The city of Houston’s CDBG-DR program is plagued with many staff vacancies (including several key management positions), high staff turnover, slow hiring processes, and lack of effective hiring and onboarding plans for new staff.”
  • “The city’s procedures do not provide a clear workflow for program implementation and overall management of its CDBG-DR grant allocations.”
  • The City did not post details on its website of all contracts funded by HUD money as required by law.
  • HCDD provided inconsistent explanations of the process used to secure a major contract, and verbally confirmed that the selection was not based on a competitive process.
  • The City tried to seek reimbursement from FEMA for costs of a HUD program, something prohibited by statute.
  • HCDD did not follow record-keeping procedures for its Hurricane Harvey Homeowner Assistance Program.
  • Staff members worked independently and did not communicate with each other re: applications. No one individual reviewed an application for completeness.

Missing documentation explains why so many got kicked back by GLO and FEMA.

Draw Your Own Conclusion

With history like that, you can see why GLO (which HUD holds accountable for Houston’s funds) became concerned. As time passed, and Houston missed one interim deadline after another for dispersal of funds, the relationship with HCDD degenerated into a lawsuit. A year after the settlement, many of the same problems still exist. The interim director has openly testified in front of City Council that the City could be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars in budget overruns.

The Mayor’s Office concluded his press release with the following:

“The City is committed, as it always has been, to transparency and improving its Housing processes.” Really?

Posted by Bob Rehak on 11/26/2021

1550 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.