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Why did the city of Houston hire a $95,000 intern?

HOUSTON – "I have no idea who you are talking about."

This is the response KPRC 2 Investigates received from Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner on Thursday when asked if he knew Marvin Agumagu, a 31-year-old who was put into a $95,000 City of Houston internship position. The mayor on two occasions made it quite clear that he did not know anyone named Agumagu.

Through our investigation, KPRC 2 learned that Turner has crossed paths often with Agumagu in the last three years and was aware of a move to create a publicly funded internship at the airport that would pay him an eye-popping figure for an intern.

Who made the decisions? What will this highly paid intern actually do?

Here is what we know about the hire:

What five words started our investigation?

"Could you develop a position?" was the question posed by the City's Chief Development Officer Andy Icken, to Mario Diaz, director of the Houston Airport System. KPRC 2 identified the question during a lengthy review of more than 8,000 emails within the airport system.

A plan was hatched between two City of Houston directors and in a matter of weeks, while in the midst of the mayor's hiring freeze, Agumagu was offered a position as the first candidate for the airport's Executive Internship program. The mayor signed off on the deal, creating the $95,000-a-year internship.

Read the emails about the creation of the internship here

Is the salary publicly funded?

Yes. The salary was covered through enterprise funds, not impacted by the hiring freeze.

The enterprise fund consists of money paid by airlines and members of the flying public for use of airport facilities.

Who is Marvin Agumagu?

Agumagu has history with the mayor and City Hall. Personnel records show he has worked in the office of the late Councilman Larry Green.

In 2016, he stood side-by-side with Turner, assisting him in a presentation of a city honor during a charity basketball game featuring Drake.

In 2017, Agumagu was yards away from the mayor during the Astros World Series parade, walking with the mayor's team on the parade route and sharing the stage with Turner for the celebration at City Hall.

In 2018, Agumagu also was listed as a guest of Turner at a banquet honoring the late Texans' owner Bob McNair.

The mayor acknowledged Agumagu in May during the City's Africa Day event, admitting he was on his team.

"Marvin from Nigeria, also on my staff working at the airport system," Turner said.

According to his LinkedIn page, Agumagu has a law degree from Texas Southern University's Thurgood Marshall School of Law.

 

How did this come about?

In September 2018, Agumagu was looking for employment. His previous City Hall internship had ended a few months earlier.

Agumagu contacted Icken via email Sept. 12, writing, "Per Mayor Turner's request, I am sending you my resume for your review." That evening, Icken emailed Airport Director Mario Diaz ultimately asking, "Could you develop a position?"

A week later, Agumagu received a verbal offer from Diaz. The next day, Sept. 20, Icken asked Diaz about the interview. Diaz said, "I offered him a one-year internship to work directly for me."

Icken's response: "Good approach." A few weeks later, Oct. 4, Diaz sent Turner an internal letter touting Agumagu as the first candidate for the newly created "Executive Intern Program." Agumagu was given the salary of a senior staff analyst, $95,000 a year with benefits. Turner signed off in the creation of a publicly funded $95,000 internship for Agumagu.

 

What is the $95,000 executive internship program?

In his letter to Turner, Diaz laid out the newly created position: "This program will provide the intern the opportunity to work closely with the most senior executive(s) of HAS. The Executive intern will assist in the day-to-day executive operations, enhancing the Executive's effectiveness by providing information, management support, representing the executive to others, conserving time by researching, and preparing reports through the collection and analyzing of data relative to the operation of the business and the Aviation industry for use in making strategic decisions. The Executive Intern will be expected to handle highly confidential information and negotiate solutions for problems of medium to high complexity as assigned by the senior executive. In addition to supporting special events and on occasion traveling with the CEO."

Diaz also wrote, "this Internship will give Mr. Agumagu the opportunity to gain valuable applied experience and make connections in career paths he may be considering within the Aviation Industry, It (sic) also gives HAS the opportunity to guide and evaluate this talent."

In the final paragraph of the letter sent by Diaz to Turner, Diaz wrote, "the Executive Intern program is newly created within HAS. Based on the scope of responsibilities, needs and demands of the job, we are requesting an effective date of October 13, 2018, with a base pay rate of $3,654 biweekly or $95,000 annualized." The salary is equivalent to that of a senior staff analyst.

And the intern is making more than other veteran employees with more experience.

Any out of the ordinary job perks?

There is one incredible perk not listed in the letter from Diaz to the mayor that KPRC 2 Investigates uncovered in an email from Icken to Diaz.

Diaz informed Icken that once the 12- to 18-month internship wraps up, Agumagu not Diaz -– will ultimately decide if he's coming on board full-time.

What is the status of the high-paying internship program?

Turner's Communications Director Alan Bernstein told KPRC 2 Investigates, "He will soon approach the end of the program and a new candidate will be selected to fill the position." But it's unclear if Agumagu will stay on as an airport employee.

What is the one question not answered?

The one question that remains unanswered: "What makes Marvin Agumagu so special that Mayor Turner signed off on the $95,000-a-year internship?"

Key dates

Sept. 12, 2018: Marvin Agumagu emails Andy Icken, the City's Chief Development Officer, "Per Mayor Turner's request, I am sending you my resume for your review."

Sept. 12, 2018: Icken emails Airport Director Mario Diaz ultimately asking, "Could you develop a position?"

Sept. 19, 2018: Agumagu receives a verbal offer from Diaz.

Sept. 20, 2018: Icken asks Diaz about the interview. Diaz says, "I offered him a one-year internship to work directly for me." Icken's response: "Good Approach."

Oct. 4, 2018: Director Diaz sends Turner a letter, touting Agumagu as the first candidate for the newly created Executive Intern Program. Agumagu is given the salary of a Senior Staff Analyst, $95,000 a year with benefits. Turner signs off in the creation of a publicly funded $95,000 internship for Agumagu.

Sept. 26, 2019: Turner repeatedly denies knowing Marvin Agumagu to KPRC 2 Investigates.

Mayor's response

Turner responded to our report. Here is his statement:

"There has been a lot of discussion, but little attention paid to the facts. I hope that everyone will review the facts and the supporting documentation that was provided to Channel 2 in advance of its story, but was not shared with its viewers, regarding the Houston Airport System's Executive Internship Program and the City of Houston's Administrative Policy 3.5 governing the hiring of Executive Level employees.

  • "As shown in this key memo, the Houston Airport System Executive Internship Program was created by Director Mario Diaz to attract new talent in the field of aviation and to serve as an entry to the Management Training Program. The establishment of the program is within the discretion and authority of the Department Director.  Please see the attached memo by Director Diaz and Administrative Procedure 3-5 7.1.2.
  • "The approval sought from the administration was to approve the re-classification of the position and waiver of posting. This personnel action was done in accordance with the City of Houston's Administrative policy.  The process is routine, and I have signed 122 of these reclassifications for each of the 23 city departments since taking office in January 2016.

"The official job title for the Executive Intern is Senior Staff Analyst (Executive Level) with a pay grade of 28.  The Department Director chose the job title and pay grade and the Human Resource Department determined both were consistent with the specified duties and responsibilities of the position.

  • "For reference, there are a total of 94 Senior Staff Analysts positions in the City of Houston, of which 15 are at the Executive Level. The current salary range for Senior Staff Analysts is $74,256 - $131,325.
  • "Mr. Marvin Agumagu's salary is commensurate with his education and experience. He has three (3) advanced degrees, including a bachelor's degree, Master's Degree and a law degree. He also has experience in international relations and governmental affairs which is an asset for the City of Houston's 5-star international airports.

"The City of Houston is proud of our record on recruiting, hiring and retaining qualified individuals. We are especially proud of our intentional outreach to attract millennials who bring innovative ideas and energy to our workforce. As we compete with the private sector for qualified employees willing to learn and excel, we are amazed at our good fortune to attract such talented young men and women committed to a life of public service.

"Regarding my statement about Mr. Agumagu, I do know Marvin and, quite candidly the reporter's question caught me off guard as I was rushing to another scheduled city event after leaving the Houston Police Department's cadet graduation."