HOUSTON – It is undoubtedly one of the stories KPRC 2 Investigates hears more about than any other in recent memory: A February 2020 investigation into a massive private African art collection we uncovered secretly stored inside of an old Harris County maintenance shed at the expense of taxpayers.
The shed was completely transformed to store the art at a price tag of $326,000.
The man overseeing it all, Commissioner Rodney Ellis, wasn’t happy with our investigation and refused to answer direct questions on multiple occasions. If you recall, the private collection had only one owner, Sam Njunuri. His business had direct ties to the sister-in-law of Commissioner Ellis.
A criminal investigation was launched following KPRC 2 Investigates’ series of reports. In October 2021, a Harris County grand jury declined to indict Ellis for the art without permission.
However, to this day, there is still one question that remains unanswered: Who owns it?
We recently found the art again inside of a corporate office building on the city’s southwest side. Although it’s now in the private sector, there is still a civil battle over who owns the art. This is because attorney Joseph Walker recently sued Njunuri on behalf of his client Darlene Jarrett. Njunuri lost the civil matter and now owes Jarrett, “Approximately $1 million,” said Walker.
In order to pay his client, Walker is banking on the sale of the art which he anticipates will be going to a public auction in the coming months.
However, auctioning off the private art collection is not the only significant development. During testimony taken under oath, Njunuri revealed to Walker he was not the sole owner of the art.
“He said there was one other owner and that owner provided an affidavit of some 185 pieces,” said Walker.
Ed Emmett is KPRC 2’s political analyst and one of the officials who also approved the art being loaned to the county when he was a county judge.
“It’s one more bizarre chapter in an extremely bizarre story,” Emmett said.
However, as clearly documented, the approval was only for 14 pieces of art in county buildings, not for well over 1,000 in a secret shed.
“None of the documentation ever mentions anyone other than Sam Njunuri,” Emmett said.
Legal records from the civil lawsuit also show that aside from admitting multiple ownership, Njunuri also testified under oath that some of the artwork may have been stolen.
“This is another layer being peeled off the onion of this case, and every time you’ve peeled off a layer you go, ‘Oh, look at this,’” said Emmett who added, “I think there needs to be a continuing look at what’s going on. This is a story that has never gone away.”
Emmett believes as a result of the new revelations by Njunuri, law enforcement should give the case another look. Walker said he is planning to have members of law enforcement when the auction takes place to ensure there are now questions during the sale.