Allegations of corruption in Harris County have hit an unignorable fever pitch.
In February, the Houston Chronicle reported on how commissioners have directly rewarded their campaign donors with contracts for said donors’ businesses.
State and federal officials have also been unable to ignore what’s happening in Space City. The Texas Rangers launched an investigation into questionable county use of federal taxpayer monies, and the FBI searched Houston’s health department.
Incompetence is also an issue; much has been written about the “fiasco” of the county’s handling of the March 2022 election. There is also the glitch in the county’s computer system that resulted in the release of 300 prisoners. That incident drew the ire of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has become increasingly critical of county officials.
Citizens appear concerned, too. For around two years, one citizen has looked into connections between county-level politicians and a constellation of organizations. Unfortunately, this individual has been unable to get local mainstream media to follow up on these findings, and so came to us.
While most reporting on Harris County’s problems revolve around Democrat County Judge Lina Hidalgo, this citizen’s research suggests ties exist between Democrat County Commissioner Rodney Ellis (a former state senator) and certain organizations receiving taxpayer monies.
Ellis’ influence, and the influence of at least one of these organizations, appears to reach all the way to Hidalgo’s office.
Texas Scorecard launched an investigation to verify the findings, and we supplemented it with our own research.
Close to Home
To counteract shuttering the economy in 2020, Congress broke open a dam and flooded federal taxpayer monies nationwide. These monies flowed to state and then local governments for eventual distribution. Harris County’s cut from the 2020 CARES Act was $426 million.
One organization the county commissioners gave some of these funds to was the Coalition for the Homeless. Ties were verified between Commissioner Ellis and this organization.
Licia Green-Ellis, Ellis’ wife, is a partner of the Waterman Steele Real Estate Consulting Group. Another partner is Lance Gilliam, who is chairman of the Coalition for the Homeless. Gilliam donated to Ellis’ campaign in 2015, and he also donated to Hidalgo in 2018, 2019, and March and June of 2021.
In April 2021, the coalition recommended commissioners allocate taxpayer monies toward “the rapid expansion of housing” for the homeless. This resulted in agreements between the county and multiple organizations, including a more than $1.2 million agreement with BakerRipley Community Developers. We’ll come back to them in a minute.
The following month, commissioners ballooned funding for the housing program to more than $7 million, of which more than $3.6 million went to BakerRipley for the county’s “Rapid Rehousing” program.
In August, commissioners granted the coalition another federal taxpayer-funded contract of more than $4 million, ostensibly to help the homeless. This resulted in “Emergency Housing Vouchers” for approximately 1,200 homeless, which were made part of Harris County’s COVID Community Housing Program (CCHP).
Then, in November, Commissioner Ellis requested and received approval for the coalition to use county facilities so they could meet with Rapid Rehousing applicants.
At the start of 2022, commissioners requested proposals for CCHP 2.0, which again involved the coalition. Proposed spending of up to $29.5 million would grow the total cost of CCHP 2.0 to $35 million.
This is just one direct connection brought to us of Ellis and an organization siphoning taxpayer monies.
Houston Power Structure
Another Ellis relationship pointed to us is with former Houston City Councilmember Felix Fraga. Fraga is vice president of the aforementioned BakerRipley, to which Democrats commissioners paid $4.8 million alongside the Coalition for the Homeless’ programs.
BakerRipley is listed as one of the county’s top 10 vendors.
Ellis and Fraga sit on the advisory board of Communities in Schools Houston (CISH), whose website claims they provide “Mental Health & Wellness and Integrated Student Supports” to local public schools.
We asked Millard House II, superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, about what services CISH provides to the district. Tejal Patel, general manager of media relations for the district, replied. Services Patel listed from CISH include supportive guidance services, career awareness activities, remedial education and tutorial activities, social service referrals, as well as activities involving cultural enrichment and parental involvement.
There is also a Fraga connection to County Judge Hidalgo. Alex Triantaphyllis, Hidalgo’s chief of staff, previously worked for BakerRipley as the director of immigration and economic opportunity. He is currently caught up in recent allegations that Houston information was illegally used to steer contracts.
In 2020, three months into the Chinese coronavirus, the commissioners court contracted with BakerRipley to administer the county’s $30 million Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP). That program ended December 2020, but Congress surged additional funding to state and local governments for rental assistance via the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021. Harris County commissioners then created the 2021 Houston-Harris County Emergency Rental Assistance Program (HHCERAP), with BakerRipley again as an administrator.
Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston was also appointed as an administrator. Like BakerRipley, they are among Harris County’s top 10 vendors.
Over the course of 2021, commissioners assigned more than $67 million of federal taxpayer monies to BakerRipley for rental assistance programs.
In February 2021, commissioners approved agreements for ERAP totaling more than $71 million. That May, BakerRipley was reportedly on track to burn through the more than $26 million assigned to them, and commissioners upped funding by $2 million. In June, after Congress flooded more taxpayer monies to the county, commissioners voted to give BakerRipley and Catholic Charities $12 million each “for rental assistance application processing and payment.” Two months later, BakerRipley was on track to expend all of their funding for HHCERAP, and commissioners sent them another $4.2 million. In September, more than $21 million went to the nonprofit for HHCERAP; in November, another $2.2 million.
Then commissioners changed course on BakerRipley in January 2022. They reduced funding by more than $1 million, while increasing funding to Career and Recovery Resources, Inc.
The other administrator of these federal funds, the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, appears to also have an Ellis connection through Fraga.
As stated earlier, Felix Fraga and Commissioner Ellis sit on an advisory board together.
Just like with BakerRipley, we found another man-made tributary connecting Catholic Charities with the Harris County Commissioners Court.
In June, commissioners paid Catholic Charities more than $2 million to administer the program. Three months later, commissioners dumped in $30 million more, $2.7 million of which was used for the nonprofit to run the program.
These agreements are fairly transparent and easy to find through the county website, but a discussion this year about another agreement appears shrouded in secrecy.
On January 25, 2022, commissioners were set to decide on awarding a year-long agreement with Catholic Charities, BakerRipley, the Tahirih Justice Center, and the Galveston-Houston Immigration Representation Project for a “confidential” amount. The purpose of the agreement was to provide a “Survivor Services in Immigration Law Program” for the county. While it is uncertain if commissioners approved the award or not, it appears they discussed it during an executive session.
As part of our investigation, Texas Scorecard examined Catholic Charities’ filings with the Internal Revenue Service, which are publicly posted. The latest filing available for Catholic Charities at the time of research was the organization’s 2020 return covering the year of 2019.
According to that filing, Catholic Charities made more from taxpayers than other sources. Of their $42.8 million in revenues, more than $24 million came from taxpayers.
But the Ellis connections to Harris County contracts don’t end there.
Charles Butt, chairman and CEO of the H-E-B megastore chain, also sits with Ellis and Gilliam on the advisory board of Communities in Schools Houston. We verified that Butt’s company, like the other entities mentioned in this piece, has benefited from taxpayer funding.
Last September, Harris County commissioners spent more than $470,000 on $100 H-E-B gift cards as part of their COVID-19 vaccination sales pitch to citizens. This was part of a more than $10 million spend, as they bought gift cards from USIO and Blackhawk Network at $8.6 million and $1.03 million, respectively.
Such spending wasn’t new. Months earlier, commissioners had bought gift cards from H-E-B and other chains “to address clients’ emergency needs and to assist clients with rental and utility assistance as needed.”
What More Awaits?
All of these connections are independently verifiable, and any reasonable observer would deem them worthy of consideration. Texas Scorecard sent inquiries to Hidalgo and Commissioner Ellis about this matter. No response was received before publication.
Other investigations combined with this suggest there could be more questions and concerns in Harris County to be looked into.
This is an ongoing investigation of Texas Scorecard. If you are aware of improprieties in Harris County, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org