13 Investigates: Texts show mayor's former aide working on behalf of troubled Midtown restaurant

Mycah Hatfield Image
Tuesday, September 13, 2022
Texts show former mayor's aide working on behalf of Midtown restaurant
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New details in an ongoing 13 Investigates story are unveiled as texts show a city employee, who pleaded guilty to corruption, working on behalf of a troubled Midtown restaurant.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- During the three and a half years that Taste Bar and Kitchen was open in Midtown, the Houston Health Department visited the restaurant dozens of times.

Hundreds of health code violations were noted during that time at the restaurant owned by Chef Don Bowie.

In the reports obtained by ABC13 through open records requests, violations included not having water at the handwashing sink, a build-up of mold and a black substance inside the ice machine, and food not being "safe for human consumption."

Red tags marked equipment in the building, indicating that it could not be used until further action was taken.

In a report from May 2022, an inspector wrote that she saw employees using an outdoor cooler that had been red-tagged. She said when she identified herself to employees, the cooler was locked and she was told no one on site had the key.

Inspection reports dating back to 2020 notate the same violations for the outdoor walk-in cooler.

The landlord, who recently regained possession of the lawsuit after a judge ruled to evict Taste Bar, said the building is in a state of disrepair.

Inspectors also noted repeat violations for operating without a Food Dealer's permit, among other necessary to operate.

Since opening in 2019, the restaurant was shut down at least six times by Houston Health Department for violations but was allowed to re-open within a day.

ABC13 obtained hundreds of emails and texts among city employees discussing the restaurant.

In one, an employee flagged Houston Public Works and the health department, saying that the restaurant was supposed to be closed but there was concern they were still operating. They also noted that red tags marking condemned equipment had been removed.

That employee asked, "What is the plan for the Health Department to insure that the business is closed until it is brought up to code?"

The City of Houston said they were launching an investigation into Taste Bar in May after the landlord spoke at a city council meeting. ABC13 has not, at any point, been able to get an update on that investigation.

Tomaro Bell, a local activist, was seen corresponding with former city council liaison William Paul Thomas who resigned over the summer from Mayor Sylvester Turner's office shortly after time he admitted to taking bribes, in some of the text messages obtained by ABC13.

In a text conversation on April 29, 2022, she writes, "Hey William Paul, I'm so sorry to be calling. It's TASTE KITCHEN. Can I speak with you or do I need to call ST it's urgent."

Within the same conversation, Thomas responds, "Are we good through the weekend?" She said, "Yes."

In another text message conversation, he tells Bell to call him, saying "ASAP ABOUT THE HEALTH DEPARTMENT AND TASTE".

ABC13 asked Bell several questions, including her connection to Taste but have not gotten a response.

There are still questions about Thomas' exact involvement, but according to the city, working on behalf of a restaurant would be outside of the scope of his responsibilities.

When asked what sort of connection the city has been able to make between Thomas and Taste, city officials said, "The city has no information to share pending the conclusion of an investigation."

Chef Bowie did not respond to a request for comment on his connection to the city directly. He shared a copy of text messages sent to him by ABC13 on social media and posed that he did not have a connection to the city.

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