Email shows Ellis concerned over African art’s ownership months before KPRC 2 Investigates report

Harris County commissioner admits massive private art collection ownership is unclear

New emails show commissioner Rodney Ellis concerned over African Art’s ownership

HOUSTON – The email KPRC 2 Investigates showcased in Monday night’s report was identified after reviewing thousands of emails through a Texas Public Information Act request. In a section near the end of the email, Ellis wrote, “update agreements with Sam in case he does not own all the art. This keeps me up at night. He need(s) to sign something and notarize it. We need more than just his word.”

Email from commissioner Rodney Ellis shows concern over African Art’s ownership (KPRC)

The email raises eyebrows for multiple reasons. First, is the time the email was written, which was “4:32 a.m.” The other is the date, Monday, Sept. 23, 2019, nearly five months prior to our report. However, what caught county officials off-guard when KPRC 2 Investigates initially made the request, is the name of the sender, “Glenn Rodney,” an email alias of Commissioner Ellis that is a combination of his first and middle names in reverse order.

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Officials within the county had no idea of that name being connected to an email address until we informed them of our discovery.

Ultimately, after several requests for the full production of the emails for “Glenn Rodney,” KPRC 2 eventually was provided with all emails that were sent by this alias address.

We recently asked Commissioner Ellis why the art collection and its unclear ownership kept him up at night? “I don’t know. I guess I was up,” said Ellis.

KPRC 2 analyst Ed Emmett had a different take.

“He’s telling his staff we’ve got to cover ourselves here,” said Emmett.

Emmett was county judge when Ellis began spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on the shed, without approval from Commissioners Court.

“You cannot spend public dollars for a private purpose. It’s not legal, you cannot do it. And this is such a clear-cut case of spending public dollars for a private purpose,” Emmett said.

The “Sam” in the email is Sam Najunuri, the alleged owner of the private collection. Najunuri also runs African Art Global. A company with ties to Ellis’ family. Ellis knew there were problems and tried to clean them up as early as September 2019.

In January 2018, county commissioners did approve 14 pieces from “African Art Global” to be displayed in county buildings. However, we found more than 1000 pieces stored in a costly refurbished shed.

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“It’s clearly an abuse of office, in my opinion,” said state Senator Paul Bettencourt.

Bettencourt filed a bill in Austin to give the attorney general power to prosecute in cases where private artwork is being stored at government expense, without public benefit.

On March 15, the Senate Committee on Local Government met in Austin to consider the bill. Our investigation was shown to lawmakers at the hearing. Both sides of the aisle expressed concern.

“I find this as repugnant as you do,” said State Senator Sarah Eckhardt, while State Senator Robert Nichols said, “It’s obvious in this case, probably somebody should do something.”

The feds and the Harris County DA’s office launched investigations. Ellis is fighting to make it go away. Campaign finance reports show he has spent well over six figures in lawyer fees to try to cover his legal fees in an attempt to straighten it all out. When asked if he’s concerned about the criminal investigation, Ellis responded with three words: “Not at all.”

Commissioner Ellis determines how much money the Harris County District Attorney’s Office - the same office investigating him - receives annually. Rusty Hardin confirms not only is he working with Ellis, but neither he nor his client has made contact with the DA’s office. Hardin says Ellis is willing to “fully cooperate” on the private collection that, over a year later, still has unclear ownership and no agreement to be stored at the public’s expense in the county maintenance shed.

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