Whitmire, Ogg call for whistleblowers to come forward, oust public corruption

(The Center Square) – Houston Mayor John Whitmire and outgoing District Attorney Kim Ogg, both Democrats, are continuing to target public corruption in city government, a marked change and partnership between two offices compared to the previous mayoral administration.

Whitmire’s commitment to weeding out public corruption, Ogg said, “is in stark contrast to what we’ve been dealing with the last seven and a half years,” referring to the previous mayoral administration of Democrat Sylvester Turner.

When announcing earlier this month that former city employees from Turner’s administration were charged with corruption in a public works fraud scheme, Whitmire said he had concerns about alleged corruption in the area of public housing.

Three weeks later, Ogg and Whitmire announced arrests were made in an affordable housing scheme. Three individuals were arrested for their alleged involvement in stealing and misusing $8.5 million in public funds through the Midtown Redevelopment Authority. The funds were supposed to be used for affordable housing and redevelopment in the Third Ward.

“Unfortunately our tax dollars meant to improve the lives of Houstonians were spent on flashy cars, nice houses, super living, trips and pornography of all things,” Ogg said at a news conference.

Whistleblowers working with the Texas Rangers and prosecutors in Ogg’s office were key to the investigation, she said. Three individuals were arrested on first degree felony charges, which carry up to life sentences.

Public housing authorities are part of Tax Increment Redevelopment Zones (TIRZ) funded through taxpayer money to improve lower income areas. A board of directors, appointed by the mayor and Harris County Commissioner’s Court, are tasked with overseeing TIRZ funds and redevelopment and improvement projects. None on the board were appointed by Whitmire.

Instead of “rubber stamping” proposed projects, the board needs “to do some due diligence,” Ogg said. The level of theft and mismanagement “was so unsophisticated that the slightest investigation or even second look would have revealed a great deal of self-dealing and that just didn’t happen,” she added.

The extent of public corruption and waste of taxpayer money was “emblematic of our concern about TIRZs and redevelopment authorities” city- and county-wide, she said. There’s been a push to create more of them and “until they’re better supervised and have been audited and checked,” she said, “there should be no more.”

The arrests and charges were the first phase in a lengthier investigation, she said, more are to come.

Ogg also called on members of the public to bring any concerns of public corruption to the Texas Rangers by calling 281-517-1400.

Whitmire encouraged “any other citizen or employee of TIRZ to become a whistleblower. We’re willing and able to listen to any concerns.”

He said the city’s Inspector General’s Office “is a much more user friendly and open to whistleblowing, or outright declarations of conflicts of interest, and in this instance, allegations of criminal activity” than it was previously.

The TIRZ “play a real important role in the maintenance and redevelopment of our city,” Whitmire said. “Due to the revenue cap, they often have discretionary funds to spend on neighborhood quality of life issues. It’s outrageous that we have discovered that they have criminal intent.”

A few days after the announcement, Whitmire was continuing to call for whistleblowers to come forward to help him root out public corruption in city government.

“Become a whistleblower,” he said in a social media post. “We are willing and able to listen to any concerns. The TIRZ plays a real, important role in the maintenance and redevelopment of our city. Conflicts of interest and criminal activity will not be tolerated.”