Turner’s Housing Deal Mess. How Has Such a Deft Politician Ended Up Here?

How did such a wily politician get caught up in a possibly unethical housing deal?
How did such a wily politician get caught up in a possibly unethical housing deal? Screenshot

As the narrative continues to unfold over the recent accusations alleging that Mayor Sylvester Turner committed ethics violations by awarding an affordable housing contract to a firm co-owned by one of his former law partners, we keep finding ourselves pondering just how strange it is that Turner has allowed himself to be tied to such a deal.

Turner is many things, but in his long career in Houston and state politics, he’s never even looked sloppy. He is the boy from Acres Homes, the smart son of a house painter and a cleaning lady who went to Harvard Law. He’s the immigration lawyer who established his own practice in the early 1980s and then started running for local office, winning a seat in the Texas House of Representatives in 1989 which he would hold for more than 20 years, even as he made repeated plays to become mayor of Houston. And throughout his long political career, he has proved time and again to be a canny politician who seldom took a wrong step on the narrow path that must be trod to be a successful Texas Democrat in this day and age.

Sure, there have been some stories attached to his name, with the most infamous one being the accusation lobbed by then-KTRK reporter Wayne Dolcefino on the eve of the closely contested 1991 mayoral race that Turner was involved in an elaborate insurance scam. Turner refuted the claim—which a jury later found to have been “defamatory, false, [and] published with actual malice”—but the damage had been done. His campaign went into freefall, and he lost the election.

Turner would make another bid in 2003 before finally being elected mayor in 2015. Meanwhile, he became known as “the conscience of the House” in Austin, a Dem who would work across the aisle with Republicans to make the deals necessary to get anything done in the Lege, and a man with the kind of political savvy that he could immediately conclude a House debate over open carry by peering over his reading glasses and saying, “Really?”

Since finally becoming mayor, he has continued to show his mettle as he’s grappled the city’s pension funds, Hurricane Harvey, the COVID-19 pandemic, the George Floyd protests, and everything else Houston has served up during his first and second terms. And all the while he’s continued to be a skilled operator, running his press conferences with wry humor and a smooth hand, turning up alongside controversial figures like Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and former Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo when it was clear that the optics would be good, while being nowhere in sight when either figure was about to do something that Turner wouldn’t support.

And that careful footwork is what makes this housing deal situation so strange. The mess erupted on a run-of-the-mill Tuesday morning late last month. Turner and the rest of the Houston City Council were participating in an online committee meeting when Houston Housing Director Tom McCasland went nuclear.

“Unfortunately, I’ve reached a point where I can no longer do the bidding of this administration as a relates to this development,” McCasland said, his words sounding clipped and brittle. “This administration is bankrolling a certain developer to the detriment of working families who need affordable homes.”

McCasland, surely aware that he was in his final hours as a city employee from the moment he started speaking, went on to lambast the mayor for choosing to back giving $15 million in federal funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to Huntington at Bay Area via the city’s Harvey Multifamily Program.

Although McCasland insisted that he was not insinuating any corruption on Turner’s part, he went on to state that he did not understand why Turner had rejected his office’s warnings and recommendations against going forward with this project when there were four other affordable housing projects that would have provided 362 affordable housing units for $16.2 million. Instead, Turner opted to back the $15 million Clear Lake project which will provide just 88 affordable housing units. Barry Barnes, Turner’s former law partner, just happens to be a co-owner and co-developer of the project, McCasland said.

Turner fired McCasland, and immediately denied any wrongdoing on his part.

“There’s no fraud here,” Turner said, his voice nearly—but not quite—hitting the smooth, reassuring tones that are a trademark of his press conferences. “The only criticism that Tom is making is that I didn’t go with his choice.”

The situation has continued to heat up. The day after the Texas General Land Office confirmed that GLO officials and auditors from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had started looking into the allegations. On Tuesday afternoon we learned that the Harris County District Attorney’s Office is also now investigating the deal.

Turner has continued to insist that nothing untoward or illegal has occurred but has yet to explain how on earth he stepped in this particular pile. (Other than claiming he didn’t know his old law partner was a co-owner of the company behind the Clear Lake development, that is.)

The whole deal may well be on the up and up, as Turner has said. However, the fact that he’s tied to this in the first place will continue to baffle us.
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray