Ex-worker lashes out against councilman

August 10, 2010 9:21:58 PM PDT
A councilman's story is being challenged as we learn the FBI is questioning people about Houston City Councilman Jarvis Johnson. The FBI will neither confirm nor deny this, and neither will the district attorney. But there are growing questions about Johnson's office soliciting donations from government contractors.

It's a bizarre turn of events in this investigation, and it means Councilman Johnson has more explaining to do -- if he'll ever face our cameras.

It's a simple question, really: Is Johnson telling the truth?

Johnson claimed he didn't know contractors were being hit up for donations in his name.

"Do you think Jarvis is dishonest?" 13 Undercover asked Kevin Simms, a former council worker.

"Yes," he replied.

"Can you talk to us about your relationship with Mr. Simms?" 13 Undercover also asked Johnson, but he didn't answer.

Maybe it's a sore subject.

The councilman claims it was Simms who solicited donations from contractors without his knowledge or consent -- like the invoice for his son's Little League team.

"Basically, the council member said that he was unaware that he was doing all the things that he was doing," City Attorney David Feldman said.

"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."

Then on Tuesday afternoon, a news conference was called so Simms could apologize to Johnson.

"Council member Johnson did not receive any favors or gave any favors for this," Simms said at the conference.

And he tried to blame Channel 13 for the dispute.

"Once a black man -- or two black men -- start doing this, you want to pit them against each other; it's not going to happen anymore," he said.

Then on Tuesday evening, Simms called 13 Undercover claiming he was told to apologize to the councilman or face repercussions, even physical ones, and he said Johnson's claim that he acted alone was a "g-damn lie." Simms claims contractors are afraid of being blackballed if they come forward.

The fight raises serious questions about the way Johnson runs his City Council office.

"I did not realize until most recently that (Simms) was actually considered to be an intern in Council Member Johnson's office, albeit a volunteer," Feldman said.

Simms was an intern who had the title of economic development coordinator for Johnson's council office.

"I think what the councilman would say is that's a title that Mr. Simms gave himself," Feldman said.

But Simms made no secret of the title on e-mails we've seen sent to the councilman and his chief of staff, Amie Francis. Simms even had a city of Houston business card that says "Economic Development Coordinator" for a councilman who wants to "lead by example."

"These are matters that reasonable people can certainly believe that need to be looked into," Feldman said.

City e-mails make it clear Simms was trying to help raise money to help fund special projects for the councilman's district with the help of a group of small businesses called AAMSP.

In a letter signed by the councilman inviting up to 4,000 Houston businesses to join the group. Contractors with questions were told to "contact Dr. Kevin Simms in my office."

"There's a lot of competition," said Steven McKinley with Stripes and Stops.

It was great news for contractor McKinley.

"Sounded like the help that I needed to be able to pick up some nice government contracts," McKinley said.

That's why McKinley wrote a personal check for $2,500 to AAMSP -- money that he knew ended up helping pay for a senior citizens project the councilman hosted. Some of the donation is missing.

Now the mystery deepens.

"I have no idea where it went. All I know is AAMSP does not have it," AAMSP's president, Gordon Garrett, said.

Johnson tells us he's built his reputation on council by helping small business. But Simms claims the councilman cares more about his political image.

"We were in his office alone, and Jarvis told me, I really don't give an 'f' about small business," Simms said.

AAMSP member Jason Freeman paid an invoice for the Little League team of the councilman's son. 13 Undercover can prove the chief of staff provided it.

"Then his chief of staff picked the check up from his company and paid the check," Simms said.

Francis did not respond to our request for an on-camera interview.

The councilman denies he was soliciting anyone and says he paid for his own kid's uniform.

"Securing contributions through that means is inherently problematic," Feldman said.

By June, Councilman Johnson had clearly ended his cheerleading for AAMSP.

"I cannot guarantee you a contract with the City of Houston, Port of Houston, and the Airport System... Dr. Simms is no longer in my office," Johnson wrote in a letter to AAMSP members.

"When people complained, he had to back off it and put it on me," Simms said.

And now Garrett says they cut ties with the councilman for ethical reasons.

"I honestly feel that he probably tried to use us as a revenue generator," Garett said.

We tried for days to get Johnson's story on camera.

"Councilman, we just want to talk to you about your relationship with Mr. Simms," 13 Undercover told Johnson.

The on-camera interview never came.

"Jarvis threw you to the wolves," 13 Undercover told Simms.

"Basically," Simms responded.

"Why?" 13 Undercover asked.

"That's Jarvis," he replied.

On Wednesday, 13 Undercover will turn its attention to the charity the councilman ran for years. It's the place he stopped the night police tried to pull him over while he was with a city secretary.

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