13 Investigates: City hides details in documents as council passes on housing probe 

Friday, October 29, 2021
13 Investigates: City of Houston hides details in documents as council passes on housing probe 
Houston's city council decided against launching an independent investigation into allegations regarding how millions in housing subsidies would be awarded.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Houston's city council this week decided against launching an independent investigation of allegations the mayor's administration "bankrolled a certain developer" in a "charade of a competitive process" to award millions in housing subsidies.

The questions came to light on September 21 when the city's then-Housing Director Tom McCasland briefed council committees about his concerns. Hours later, McCasland was fired. Shortly afterwards Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner denied doing anything wrong, denied knowing his former business partner was a part of the housing deal and called for an investigation.

Turner tasked his own city attorney with the probe, who in turn recommended hiring an outside firm to conduct it to avoid any perceived conflict.

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This week, council considered hiring the Butler Snow firm to conduct the outside investigation. It would cost the city $325,000. In the run-up to the vote, Turner did not weigh in but suggested that since he cancelled the award for the housing deal before council voted to spend the money, there was little to investigate.

"Councilmembers, I can't say this enough. There is nothing for you to vote on," Turner told the meeting Wednesday. The Mayor seemed to take offense at a call for the Texas Rangers to come in and look.

"Enough of this foolishness," Turner said from the center of the council horseshoe. "I think I've been very patient."

In the end, he joined nearly two-thirds of city council members in deciding to pass on the outside investigation for at least 30 days, maybe forever.

ORIGINAL REPORT: City of Houston housing director fired after alleging mayor is 'bankrolling' developer

As 13 Investigates attempts to figure out how the lower scoring housing deal somehow leapfrogged to the top of the mayor's list, we asked the city for the company's application for millions of your dollars using Texas open records laws. After waiting weeks, the city finally turned it over. Despite releasing many of the same details in a press release before the uproar, this time key details were missing.

On page after page of the three documents the city sent us basic details were blanked out:

The name of the company submitting the application was whited out.

So was the name of the project.

The company board members were gone.

The entire resume of a "key participant" was blanked out entirely.

All of the projects they worked on before were hidden.

The city even whited out the name of the person who filled out the conflict-of-interest disclosure, a form intended to make sure the deal is free from improper influence.

The housing department's compliance officer said he's just following the rules as he interprets them to keep secret the information about people applying for federal disaster recovery funds and since the deal was cancelled when it caused an uproar, they didn't get any money so no need to release their name.

In an email, Clay Smith, the Housing Departments Records Manager in the Compliance Section wrote, "Under (Texas Code) 552.160, Open Records is not allowed to release 'the name, tax identification number, address, and telephone number of a business entity or owner...that applies for state or federal disaster recovery funds.' Moreover, we cannot release information that, if disclosed, would identify the applicant for state or federal disaster recovery funds. Lastly, these funds were not awarded to the applicant(s). A short explanation of (Texas Code) 552.110 would be Open Records cannot release what is reasonably believed to be confidential material that protects the ability of the third-party to compete with other parties in the future."