HOUSTON — Four months after City Hall sent out requests for proposals for engineering firms to study a downtown connection to a bullet train that would zip from Houston to Dallas, a close family friend of Mayor Sylvester Turner secured a $5,000 per month contract with bullet train company, Texas Central. The family friend even asked Turner for advice on negotiating the contract.
From the email of close family friend Maya Ford: “Hi there Pops,” she wrote to Turner on Aug. 16, 2016. “I received the contract from Texas Central today. Can you please see attached and let me know if there’s anything I should push back on? Also it shows that it’s for one year. I recall you mentioned I should try to sign a multi-year deal. Should I approach it one year at a time, or negotiate that now?”
The email raises questions if Turner is working two sides of the street: Helping a close family friend negotiate a contract with a company that was also trying to negotiate a deal with Houston as part of its bullet train plan.
In August 2017, Turner and Texas Central signed a deal on the development of high-speed train passenger station connections. Texas Central needs Houston’s help to provide its stations access to highways and public transit.
Turner described Ford as a “low level employee” in a Wednesday press conference, but did not elaborate. He walked out of the press conference without answering questions about whether he played any role in securing Ford her contract.
The “low level employee” comment belies Ford’s high-level work with Turner.
Not only was she a co-chair for Women for Turner during Turner’s run for mayor, she also co-chaired his transition team after his election and has been described as a very close family friend in news reports.
Keith Gross is a Houston-area attorney and former public official. He has also represented several elected officials in Harris County.
“I have read the email,” Gross said. “And I believe the transaction does not pass a smell test. The email correspondence between the mayor and a close family friend about negotiating the agreement shows she clearly looked to the mayor when negotiating the terms of the agreement. The email leads us to believe the mayor would have some influence on the hiring or on the terms of their agreement. There is simply no other explanation for the email.”
Ford did not return a call seeking comment.
“I would be interested to know if Texas Central had been seeking to hire an employee, or did it create a position for her?,” Gross said.
Michael Moore, regional vice president with Texas Central, also did not return a call seeking comment.
State records show that Ford filed the paperwork to create her company, Ford Momentum, three days after Turner’s inauguration.
The Ford Momentum website showcases work the company has done with other entities. Many are closely linked to the city, such as Houston First, Midtown Houston, Hire Houston Youth, and the Houston Health Department.
The status of Ford Momentum is also unclear.
State records show that just last month the Texas Secretary of State declared the company “inactive” and said it had a “forfeited existence” citing the Texas tax code.
“The Secretary has received certification from the Comptroller of Public Accounts under
Section 171.302 of the Texas Tax Code indicating that there are grounds for the forfeiture
of the taxable entity’s charter, certificate or registration,” the letter the Secretary of State to Ford Momentum reads. “The Comptroller of Public Accounts has determined that the taxable entity has not revived its forfeited privileges Within 120 days after the date that the privileges were forfeited.”
The bullet train has been a long-talked about project designed to transport passengers between Houston and Dallas in 90 minutes. The $12 billion project will be privately funded.
Texas Central says the train system is expected to start its build-out this year. It is expected to generate $36 billion to the economy over the next 25 years, create more than 10,000 jobs per year during construction and more than 1,000 jobs each year after that.
Texas Central has made progress in Dallas, too.
In January, plans for the North Texas Station in Dallas were released. It will be located on the west side of The Cedars with pedestrian walkways connecting to Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center.
The project has its critics. Late last year, the Federal Railroad Administration narrowed the potential paths for the train down to one likely route. Homeowners in rural areas between Houston and Dallas are concerned that train might possibly cut through their property.
Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or at 832-258-6119.