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Investigation: Mayor’s office received $500K offer asking mayor to help close private land deal

HOUSTON – A thread of emails dating back to 2017 between Mayor Sylvester Turner’s inner circle and local businessman Jason Yoo, is raising questions about bribery.

On August 11, 2017, Yoo sent an email to William Paul Thomas, the director of City Council Relations and Andy Icken, the City of Houston’s Chief Development Officer.

In the email, Yoo asked for City Hall and Turner to help him land and close a private real estate deal involving BP headquarters on the city’s Westside for $348 million. Yoo asked Turner to talk with the “CEO of BP” to see if they would work with Yoo and his partners, the email read.

“I will donate $500,000 to city or other charity firms that Mayor wants,” Yoo wrote at the end of the email, which would be contingent on the deal going through.

Yoo has done business with the city for years, primarily through concession contracts at George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

Former federal prosecutor Michael Wynne has a history of prosecuting public corruption crimes.

“I’ve seen a lot of emails that have gotten people in a lot of trouble,” Wynne said. "I’m not sure how often I have seen something that is this straightforward laying out the quid pro quo that they have in mind, that is the money in return for closing a deal.”

When Channel 2 Investigates showed him the email, he was shocked.

“$500,000. They put this in an email,” Wynne said. "On the face of it, it looks like it is a bribe.”

Mark Stephens, a former lead investigator for the Houston Police Department’s defunct Public Integrity Unit agreed.

“The offer that he made was very clear and very specific," Stephens said. “They should immediately open an investigation.”

“They should have called the FBI,” Wynne said.

They did not.

Instead, Thomas and Icken sent Yoo a follow-up email.

Ten days after the first email, they told Yoo they had spoken to each other “to determine the feasibility of your request."

On Tuesday, Turner’s spokesperson emailed Channel 2 Investigates to say, “This matter was never discussed with the mayor. The administration does not conduct business that way."

The next day, Channel 2 Investigative Reporter Mario Diaz asked Turner directly.

“This matter was never or brought or discussed with me, Mario. Never,” he said.

The digital trail tells a different story.

On August 22, 2017, one day after Thomas and Icken sent Yoo a follow-up email, Thomas emailed Turner’s executive assistant, Brenda Murphy stating clearly that the Mayor said he would meet with Yoo regarding the BP deal.

Turner told KPRC 2 he was completely unaware of the email until we provided it to his office this week.

“The email, when I saw it yesterday, based on what you presented, the email was inappropriate and the people who work at the city, my staff and individuals looked at it and they never... they did not take any action on it.”

Yet again, the digital trail contradicts this.

Emails show Thomas and Icken did discuss it. Thomas provided Icken the financial details of Yoo’s private deal.

In fact, after Thomas wrote that the Mayor would meet with Yoo, Thomas sent the thread of internal city emails to Yoo, writing, "I’m on this! Relax.”

A thread of emails dating back to 2017 between Mayor Sylvester Turner’s inner circle and local businessman Jason Yoo, is raising questions about bribery.
A thread of emails dating back to 2017 between Mayor Sylvester Turner’s inner circle and local businessman Jason Yoo, is raising questions about bribery. (KPRC)

Ultimately, in a separate email, Turner informed his assistant that he would not meet with Yoo after all.

“My only request is that you air what is factually correct, no discussion, never saw the email until you presented it the city on yesterday," Turner said.

Federal law is clear. The bribery statute reads, the “intent to give or receive something of value in exchange for an official act” is a violation.

The State of Texas has a similar law. When it comes to bribery cases in Houston, both the U.S. Department of Justice and the Harris County District Attorney can prosecute.

Wynne says law enforcement needs to investigate.

“If that came across my desk, I’d be getting an agent on it immediately,” he said.

Channel 2 Investigates asked Turner’s office if the email had been turned over to law enforcement, considering Turner was just made aware of it. The city did not respond to our inquiry.

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KPRC 2′s Bryan Luhn and Tulsi Kamath contributed to this story.