The liaison officer between Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office and City Council, who pled guilty to a federal conspiracy charge involving cash bribes from a bar owner, appears to have previously worked to help other private businesses on deals against the best interest of the City of Houston, according to emails obtained by KPRC 2 Investigates.
In July, William Paul Thomas, the former Director of City Council Relations, pleaded guilty to helping change the certification of bars to restaurants during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in exchange for money.
Thomas’ actions were described as “out of character” by Mayor Sylvester Turner, who admitted he was surprised at the revelations surrounding his former senior advisor.
Thomas had announced his resignation the week before the plea became public.
A pattern of backroom negotiations
The director of city council relations typically acts as the chief liaison between the mayor and the city council.
In 2020, emails obtained by KPRC 2 Investigates through the Texas Public Information Act showed Thomas worked outside of the scope of his role on several occasions.
One email showed Thomas in the middle of a massive six-figure offer in exchange for Mayor Turner’s help in the closing of a private land deal for local businessman Jason Yoo.
“The email, when I saw it yesterday, based on what you presented, the email was inappropriate,” said Turner back in 2020 in response to KPRC 2′s investigation.
Thomas and Yoo declined to comment on the emails back in 2020. They also have not responded to calls or emails made by KPRC 2 Investigates for comment.
The money was contingent on getting the Mayor’s “strong help” to close the deal valued at nearly $350 million dollars. The $500,000 to be pulled out of the commission, according to Yoo’s email.
The email was sent to Thomas, as well as Andy Icken, a fellow city director within Mayor Turner’s inner circle.
“$500 thousand dollars, they put this in an email,” said former federal prosecutor Michael Wynne. “They should have called the FBI.”
But they didn’t.
In fact, KPRC 2 Investigates identified other emails where Thomas continued assisting Yoo in support of his business investments at Bush Intercontinental Airport.
On November 30, 2017, Thomas communicated with Yoo’s business partner and the Houston Airports System Director, Mario Diaz, about penalties levied against Yoo and his partners.
Thomas asked on Yoo’s behalf for penalties to be waived after Yoo and his partners failed to meet contractual obligations for an airport concessions project.
Airport records from that year show Yoo and his partner owed the city of Houston’s Airport System $861,000.
“In this email, he is certainly not getting funds for the city,” said Angela Weltin, a former chief prosecutor for public integrity with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. “It is a specific request to liquidate the penalties.”
The mayor’s office says reassessed liquidated damages were offered to Yoo’s partner following the emails.
However, a spokesperson for the city says the Houston Airports System has reassessed liquidated damages in roughly two dozen other cases. The city did not provide any other details about those cases.
In response, a city of Houston’s spokesperson sent a statement that reads in part, “William Paul Thomas, Director of Council Relations, did not negotiate on behalf of the subcontractor and had no influence in this matter.”
Weltin believes the email carried influence.
Again, Thomas’ job was to be a liaison for city council members, not for private business owners who want access to City Hall.
Other findings from the emails:
- Other emails show Thomas referring to Yoo as a “partner.”
- In Another, Thomas gets Yoo’s request to get his “ACDBE Certification for 2019 to include “Duty-Free” for his company completed. Thomas directly reached out to a Division Manager in the City’s Office of Business Opportunity.
How is this regulated?
Ian Wadsworth, the Houston Airport’s System Commercial Development Officer at the time stated the city attorney would have to sign off on a settlement.
Airport Director Mario Diaz said he did have plans to cancel liquidated damages, but emails show they eventually settled in the neighborhood of $100,000 a fraction of what was invoiced to Yoo and his partners.
Mayor Turner’s office stated in late 2020 that they were still in the process of collecting the fines.
One City Hall official told KPRC 2 Investigates the city’s attorney should have signed off on the final settlement since the fines were tied to a contractual agreement involving the city’s airport system.
“I think that it should be investigated,” said Weltin. “This absolutely is telling with regard to improper influence.”