Is Jarvis Johnson avoiding 13 Undercover?

August 10, 2010 1:04:32 PM PDT
A city councilman won't talk to 13 Undercover cameras, but you'll see why we wanted to talk to him. The DA's office will not confirm or deny whether investigation of Houston Councilman Jarvis Johnson has widened beyond his arrest in June for allegedly evading police. But ethics questions are swirling around the councilman's office.

Two weeks before Houston Councilman Jarvis Johnson was arrested in a car with his city secretary, 13 Undercover got a complaint from someone from the councilman's office was hitting up contractors for donations.

What you're about to read is fueling calls for a code of ethics for Houston City Council. No, they don't have one.

You don't usually see a city councilman in the back of a patrol car, under arrest. A jury will decide whether Johnson evaded police last month.

"At no point did I ever speed away from the officer," Johnson said.

But he's been evading our camera for weeks now.

We will follow the money, even though some of it seems to be missing.

"That is a concern" said Steven McKinley with Stripes and Stops.

McKinley's business depends on government contracts -- signs, painting lines on roads.

"There's a lot of competition," McKinley said.

So when a worker in Johnson's office asked for a donation, "it's hard to say no," McKinley said.

It was money for a special event in Johnson's district, a senior prom. The councilman was hosting the event.

McKinley didn't even know that "senior" didn't mean high school seniors, but senior seniors.

Here's the check: $2,500.

But did all the money make it to charity?

McKinley was thanked for a donation of just $2,035, so you do the math. Twenty percent of the good will is now unaccounted for.

"Kind of wonder where the rest of the money went?" 13 Undercover asked McKinley. "Now that you brought it up, absolutely," McKinley responded. "

"It might be a mistake or it might not be. That's why you have investigations," said Fred Lewis, ethics expert and former assistant attorney general who helped draft state ethics law.

And that's why you ask public officials questions on camera -- if you can.

Some people are just modest about their charity. Maybe that's why city contractor Jason Freeman is hiding.

"Mr. Freeman, why are you hiding from me?"13 Undercover asked him before getting confronted by a security officer.

"So is Mr. Freeman is asking us to leave?" 13 Undercover asked.

"Yes sir," the security officer said.

Who doesn't like a visit from us?

Freeman paid an invoice to a Fifth Ward T-shirt shop after that same volunteer asked for $1,900 for uniforms, gear -- all for a Little League team. Turns out, one the players is little Jarvis, the councilman's son.

In an email, the councilman told us:

"I have never used my position to get any financial gains for my family or me. That includes the fact that I pay for uniforms and equipment my son uses when he plays sports. There is no story here."

We asked the councilman's office if any other Fifth Ward youth teams got this kind of treatment from them. No one responded.

"It looks bad," 13 Undercover said.

"Well, it certainly raises a question," City Attorney David Feldman responded.

Freeman's company got a $10 million contract from City Council last December. Councilman Johnson voted yes. The solicitation came months later.

Later in a phone call, Freeman claimed he didn't know the Little League team had a personal connection to the councilman.

"At a minimum, it should be disclosed. If it's nothing wrong with it, then let's disclose it," Lewis said. "Frankly, I would ban it."

At least with campaign donations, the public gets to see who's donating.

Even with charitable events, there's a paper trail the public can follow.

Take Jerry Eversole's leukemia golf tournament. Lots of county contractors donated money, but we know that from the charity's records.

But writing a check to a T-shirt company leaves no public paper trail.

"The thing about disclosure is if the public knows about it, you have to at least explain it," Lewis said. "If nobody knows about it, you don't even have to explain your behavior."

"You figured donating this money helps your chances to get a city contract," 13 Undercover said.

"Absolutely," McKinley responded.

"Did it?" 13 Undercover then asked.

"No," he replied.

The councilman has denied he was involved in soliciting money from contractors, saying a former volunteer was acting on his own.

"I don't have nothing to hide," said Kevin Simms, a former council employee.

See the woman at the councilman's post-arrest press conference? She's his council chief of staff, Amie Francis.

Her April e-mail to Simms:

"Attached is the new invoice for the baseball team. I need the name and address of the people that will make the donation."

Simms then e-mails Freeman.

"Jarvis is the type of person, he don't get his hands dirty," Simms said. "But he's the godfather of it; he's the arranger of it, and he'll vehemently deny it."

Both contractors involved in Monday's story say they never talked directly with the councilman. And Jason Freeman says he thought he was just helping some disadvantaged kids. On Tuesday, we'll focus on the councilman and his former volunteer?and who's telling the truth.

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The following documents were obtained by Eyewitness News for this investigation. Some were through a Freedom of Information request and others were sent directly to 13 Undercover

Email exchange regarding Little League uniforms
Councilman Johnson's 'Leading by Example' memo
Councilman Johnson's response to KTRK
Letter sent by Councilman Johnson about the senior party
Information on Councilman Johnson's constituency


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