HARRIS COUNTY, Texas – It has been over 18 months since KPRC 2 Investigates revealed a Harris County maintenance shed under the control of County Commissioner Rodney Ellis was secretly housing a massive African art collection.
Since the initial report, the collection has sat in the shed off of Reed Road generating more questions than answers.
“My impression is they just want to kind of wash their hands of the situation,” said Joe Walker, an attorney who has a civil action involving the art.
Walker was made aware by the office of Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee earlier this week that the art in question may no longer be in the shed, effective Sept. 20.
“I was not given any reasons as to why it had to be moved,” said Walker. “I think there has been so much focus on the use of taxpayers’ money to store that art. I think there is a significant amount of heat to move that art out of there.”
Ellis has a spokesperson from outside the county handling all inquiries on the matter. Bill Miller, a well-known lobbyist, admits to KPRC 2 Investigates the ownership of the art has not been authenticated.
“We’d like for the owner to get it, whoever that is. If it’s Sam, great. If it’s somebody else, great,” said Miller.
Sam Najunuri originally was touted as the owner of the private collection.
“So far, as we know, he hasn’t documented ownership in a way that would allow it to transfer back to him,” Miller said. “The county and district attorney said it can be moved and the owner can come get it.”
The collection and the hundreds of thousands spent to refurbish the shed have been at the center of two criminal investigations launched by public integrity investigators. KPRC 2 Investigates learned one is near the finish line.
State Senator Paul Bettencourt called on the Rangers to open a “detailed investigation to determine the extent of the alleged illegal conduct” in a letter three weeks ago.
“I asked the Rangers to go look into it because I was tired of waiting,” said Bettencourt.
Days later, the Rangers responded, stating that the Harris County DA’s Public Integrity Unit is “preparing to present their findings to a Harris County Grand Jury in the near future.” Further in the response, “The Rangers offered investigative assistance, but no request was extended.”
“If the Rangers are told that they don’t need any assistance by the public integrity unit, then it’s 100% on the public integrity unit to take action,” said Bettencourt, who has been critical of the private collection being warehoused at the public’s expense.
Miller said Commissioner Ellis, “has not talked to any investigators.”
Ed Emmett is KPRC 2′s Political Analyst. He also approved a different agreement involving Ellis and Najunuri when he was a county judge.
“Under the Texas Constitution, you cannot use public dollars for a private purpose. Period,” says Emmett.
Emmett also pointing out that a private benefit was provided through the use of the public office. Miller said no one benefited, but admits there has been no rent collected in the storing of the collection, nor any kind of property taxes for the inventory of the art.
“If there is inventory that is in a business, then you have to render it and pay taxes on it. This is clearly not been happening,” said Bettencourt, who believes it should have been rendered to the Harris County Appraisal District.
In response to the Ranger’s offer of assistance, Harris County DA Kim Ogg said, “That is not true.” The DA’s office said it is not involved in the moving of the art since it is a civil matter.
The county attorney also did not respond to inquiries as to why the art is being allowed to move if there is no paperwork to authenticate ownership. The county attorney referred us back to Commissioner Ellis’ Precinct One office for answers.
As for the Federal Investigation, according to the Rangers, the FBI did not find that a federal crime was committed.