HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The Harris County District Attorney confirms a "pending criminal investigation" connected to Houston City Hall. In a letter obtained by 13 Investigates, the DA denies access to documents related to the probe, because in their words, "this investigation has yet to be resolved" and is "in the course of preparing for criminal litigation."
13 Investigates requested documents from the city weeks ago when the City of Houston's now-former Housing Director shocked City Hall with allegations of a "charade of a competitive process" to award millions in housing subsidies. According to sources and documents at that point, the DA was asking about specific payments made to specific individuals starting in 2018.
At the time, a spokesperson for Mayor Sylvester Turner denied any investigation, but said the DA had made an "informal request" for spending policies and procedures. The city complied with that request.
A spokesperson for the Mayor's Office tells 13 Investigates, "We are not aware of any criminal investigation or what, if anything, DA Ogg is investigating. Further, the City is not aware of any criminal wrongdoing and the onus is on the District Attorney's Office to explain the documents."
The documents obtained on Wednesday make it clear, the DA's work goes beyond any informal look at how the city spends your money.
According to city documents reviewed by 13 Investigates, one of the individuals the DA is asking about is Barry Barnes, a Houston attorney who was Mayor Turner's longtime business partner. Barnes was a named co-manager and co-developer in the project McCasland complained about. The DA investigation comes at the same time, but may not be related to the McCasland allegations. Barnes and Turner dissolved their partnership before Turner took office. Barnes has not returned numerous calls to his office for the last four weeks. Our attempts to reach him today were unsuccessful as well.
A spokesperson for the DA said the office will not comment to 13 Investigates beyond what the documents say. It is important to note an investigation does not mean charges will be filed.
The controversy began on Sept. 21, when McCasland alleged at a city council meeting that Turner is "bankrolling" a developer instead of prioritizing the interests of low-income families who need affordable housing.
McCasland shocked City Hall by alleging a "charade of a competitive bidding process" led to Turner's support of awarding millions in taxpayer funding to a developer for the Huntington at Bay Area, a housing project that will provide 148 apartment complexes for seniors in Clear Lake.
McCasland said he was concerned that only 88 of those units would be available to low and moderate income Houstonians when other proposed projects, which scored higher in the selection process, would provide more affordable housing units.
After nearly three weeks of controversy, Turner announced on Oct. 11 that he will no longer support housing subsidies for a Clear Lake senior living apartment complex, saying it had become "too much of a distraction."
Instead, Turner said he will support two other projects that scored higher on original rounds. New Hope Housing at Berry, a 240-unit complex on Houston's northside, was recommended for $10 million in subsidies. Turner replaced the Huntington project with Fairways at Westwood, a 120-unit affordable apartment complex in the Alief/Westwood area. The Fairways project is recommended for the $15 million in subsidies the Huntington project would have received.
According to city documents, the switch costs the same amount but will build 32 more affordable housing units. As Turner's statement notes, neither of the projects are in Council District E, which encompasses Clear Lake and Kingwood.
The new recommendations from the mayor, again, do not select the highest scoring projects. That has not escaped notice at the GLO, where they are reviewing Houston housing spending. A GLO spokesperson said last week it will insist the city "prove it followed a federally approved competitive bidding process" to make this new $15 million award.
Turner has always said his support for the Huntington project was formulated on his desire to add subsidized housing in the Clear Lake community. Both Turner and City Attorney Arturo Michel suggested last month the U.S. Housing and Urban Development department had criticized the city in the past for not spreading low-income housing across the city.