More questions raised over councilman's ethics

August 25, 2010 4:58:22 AM PDT
Houston City Councilman Jarvis Johnson's ethical troubles are growing deeper as 13 Undercover questions the councilman's relationship with a city contractor. It's the latest chapter in our widening probe of the Fifth Ward public official and the way he runs his office. The district attorneys won't comment, but the city's attorney is questioning the councilman's conduct because of what we found in city emails.

Desoto Street was once named the deadliest street in Houston.

Imagine trying to live around there. Now you can watch a mission to save this very troubled neighborhood, one apartment complex at a time.

"Tear down these blighted properties because that's going to be a huge barrier to the revitalization of this neighborhood," Hollyview Apartments owner Tom Miller said.

Miller bought the 328-unit Hollyview Apartments before an influx of Hurricane Katrina refugees fueled horrible crime in the area.

The city was set to provide an $8 million grant to make the place new again. And Miller says he had gone to City Hall to thank the district's councilman for his help in making it happen.

"I've never met with Jarvis Johnson alone," Miller said. "He's always got somebody there, aides and people that work with him."

This time, Miller says, the guy with the councilman was Michael Harris.

You've seen Harris defending Johnson in his current criminal case. The councilman describes Harris to us as a personal counselor, advisor and friend.

But months before at that meeting, Miller claims Harris offered himself as a possible consultant for the apartment complex project -- a project being done in Johnson's council district.

"I asked him specifically what his role would be, and it would be to help with the minority income component of the contract," Miller said.

Two other people hired by Miller for that same project back up his account.

"It doesn't seem appropriate to me quite frankly," Miller said.

But Miller says the councilman exerted no pressure on him to hire Harris -- and he didn't.

But wait, Councilman Johnson says the meeting never happened -- at all.

"He says that there was no meeting in his office in which Michael Harris was present," Houston City Attorney David Feldman said.

And Harris? He denies the meeting happened, too.

"We've got the proverbial he-said, she-said," said Feldman. "Somebody is obviously not telling the truth."

And that's why you ask public officials questions on camera -- or at least try.

"Can you talk to us about your relationship with Mr. Harris?" 13 Undercover asked Johnson, but he didn't answer and got into a car.

By email, the councilman told us, "I do not involve myself in (Michael Harris') private business."

But that's why city emails raise so many questions.

"They certainly raise some flags," Feldman said.

Just down the street from Hollyview is Sterling Grove, another apartment complex asking for an extreme makeover and $11 million from the city to do it.

On December 14, 2009, there was a meeting scheduled in Councilman Johnson's office with the developer to talk about, "who will be the contractors."

It was two days before the council vote.

"If that meeting took place as the heading suggested and the attendees listed would suggest, then no, I don't think that's appropriate," Feldman said.

The only people originally listed to attend -- other than the councilman's aides -- was Jim Jamail, a big city contractor who runs a construction company called Jamail and Smith and his lawyer and consultant -- that same Michael Harris.

Jamail Smith says the pair was there to learn more about the owner's plans for the project. The same day council voted on Sterling Grove, Johnson's office emails Harris with the way to contact the developer.

Remember the developers -- not city council -- decide who will do the construction.

"I would agree with you that type of thing needs to be looked into," Feldman said.

The remodeling of Hollyview is underway, but Jamail and Smith lost the bid for that job -- and for Sterling Grove.

In March, Councilman Johnson tried to block funding for both projects, complaining the developers weren't using enough District B contractors. He complained the developers were telling people "that I am forcing or shaking them down" in order to get jobs for the community.

But is the councilman favoring one particular company whose lawyer is his lawyer -- Michael Harris?

In April, Johnson's chief of staff, Amie Francis, sent out an email to another guy quoting, "Here's the name of the contractor in the district": Jamail and Smith Construction.

"I'd certainly have a problem with that," Feldman said.

Jamail and Smith's headquarters is in Clear Lake, not District B, but they do have an office in District B -- remember that. And remember Johnson denied he was soliciting donations from city contractors a week ago. Watch Eyewitness News at 10pm on Wednesday to see what we've uncovered now.

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