A Little Help From My Friends

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Our investigation of the Houston Housing Authority gravy train isn’t just exposing questionable real estate deals with contaminated dirt. The wife of a County Commissioner is getting rich off these deals. Now we ask if a half a million dollar public housing consulting deal was money well spent… or just a little help from some powerful friends.

Don’t you just love a weekend wedding party? A chance for good friends to party by the pool for that special occasion. This wedding was being held at the fancy Le Blanc Spa Resort in Mexico. And you can tell love is in the air.

And when it’s a destination wedding in Cancún, Mexico you just have to charter a boat so you can cruise the coast with cocktails.

Whose wedding was it? Donna Dixon’s, the special assistant to the President of the Houston Housing Authority, his right hand. Here she is in meeting attire at a recent meeting of Houston’s housing agency.

Just days before that wedding weekend we had reached out to Donna Dixon very early in our investigation of Houston’s public housing agency. After all the website said she was the contact for the media. But Dixon sent us instead to Etched Communications, a crisis management firm paid by you to handle guys like me because taxpayers really shouldn’t have to hear negative stuff about the government, right?

Since May of 2017 Etched Communications has been paid handsomely. $433,000.

“A housing complex that flooded during Hurricane Harvey is now infested with mold and E. coli.”

Hurricane Harvey may have swamped hundreds of families out of their homes at clayton homes but have no fear. Etched was there to “diffuse any potentially negative coverage.” Boy that’s housing money well spent.

What does any of that have to do with Donna Dixon’s recent Mexico wedding? Well we noticed on Facebook that one of the partiers on the boat sure looked like the HHA crisis management vendor Toni Harrison, the President of Etched Communications. And thanks to Facebook our suspicions were later confirmed. There was Toni Harrison posing for a sunset photo by the same love sign.

And just months before Donna Dixon had traveled all the way to Egypt. Of course, you got to ride a camel on a journey like that. And look who else was with her: Toni Harrison. They’re queens of the Nile. It’s nice to have good friends.

But Donna Dixon doesn’t make the final call on who gets big contracts at HHA because this guy does. LaRence Snowden, chairman of the Houston Housing Authority. He’s the guy that reports straight to Mayor Sylvester Turner.

“How you doing man?” asked Wayne Dolcefino, President of Dolcefino Consulting.

“Good,” replied the HHA lawyer.

“Good. I’m trying to talk to him. All right let’s walk this way now,” Dolcefino said.

We’ve been trying to get the truth from Mr. Snowden for weeks as we investigated a proposed $83 million land deal on both sides of Buffalo Bayou just east of downtown.

“I’m not aware of any hiding of anything,” said Board Chair LaRence Snowden.

That’s just not true. The housing authority is hiding the environmental reports on the land. Turns out Mr. Snowden and his friends at HHA want to spend up to $13 million on land that’s so contaminated that no one can even live on it.

The rest of the property on the south side of the bayou is surrounded by an old garbage incinerator and a lead company which got in trouble with the state for you guessed it contamination. Turns out the northside project may end up being right next to a noisy freeway.

Opponents of this deal are now even organizing a petition to try to stop the first 15 million bucks from going out the door. 

“Don’t you think people have a right to know who’s making money on this deal?” Dolcefino said.

Mr. Snowden must have been choked up because he had nothing to say but we found out on our own who’s making the money. It’s the guy who was fired as the last Houston Housing Authority Chairman, Lance Gilliam. 

And guess who else? The wife of Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis. They seem to be part of just about every Houston public housing deal these days. $280,000 in consulting fees in just three months. Yep we called it a gravy train.

“HHA believes this community is a great place to live and raise our families,” Snowden said.

Snowden gave an impassioned speech last October on just how great the developers were on these east end land deals. But his text messages busted him. The speech was really written by Lance Gilliam, who works for the developers.

Want more evidence Mr. Snowden is merely a puppet on a string? Last June after Mr. Snowden and Mr. Gilliam met for a pricey lunch downtown, the housing chairman texted about another multi-million-dollar project Gilliam was peddling at 1950 Winrock Blvd. “Any specific details other than talking points,” Snowden wrote.

“We will move to resolution number 3069 authorizing the development of the Winrock North apartments,” Snowden said. The following month HHA approved that deal too.

On March 6th we asked Etched to explain why Gilliam and the wife of a local commissioner were being paid consulting fees on so many public housing projects. Hear the crickets? We got silence for weeks. Wonder why?

Etched boasts about building credibility through transparent, consistent communications.

On March 24th we’d had enough of waiting. “What exactly do you do for this $150,000 contract?” we wrote.

That got us a response from Toni Harrison who said they wouldn’t do the crisis job you pay them to do unless we “establish a professional boundary.” “Let’s discuss next steps for productive, harmonious communication.”

Harrison called our previous communications, “hostile, aggressive and unprofessional.”

Aggressive, hostile. Who, me? I’m like the most harmonious guy around. You folks know that. Unprofessional? What unprofessional things did we do? Oh I know. We walked down a hallway asking questions to a bureaucrat about how he was spending your money and we had a TV camera with us. Ooh that must be some sort of media crime these days,” Dolcefino said.

Since then more crickets, so we can’t ask about another curious connection we found.

Toni Harrison’s family lived on south MacGregor and guess who lives right next door? Wait for it. LaRence Snowden. What a small world. Snowden hasn’t responded to our request for a comment. Neither has Toni Harrison or Donna Dixon.

Wonder if she’ll now accept me as a friend on Facebook, because her parties, well, sure look fun.

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