Former MRA employee and contractors arrested for corruption

The Harris County District Attorney's Office announced Friday that a former staff member and two contractors involved with the Midtown Redevelopment Authority have been arrested on public corruption charges.

Todd Edwards, the former property manager accused of “improperly” using his oversight of millions of dollars in the authority's landscaping funds for his own benefit, and authority contractors Veronica Ugorgi and Kenneth Jones, were charged with the “scheme to steal and abuse.” of approximately $8.5 million in public funds from the MRA.

“Now, Mr. Edwards and his co-defendants’ plan to steal and misuse that money has resulted in first-degree felony charges against each of them,” said Harris County Prosecutor Kim Ogg, during a press conference on Friday. “All of these charges carry life sentences. Unfortunately, our tax dollars intended to improve the lives of Houstonians have been spent on flashy cars, nice homes, great living, travel, and pornography.

Danielle Villasana/Houston Landing

For years, residents have complained that officials' ultimate goal, emptying Third Ward land to build affordable housing, was not going as planned. The lots sat empty for years, covered in overgrown vegetation despite major landscaping contracts. Residents pointed the finger at Edwards, and in early October 2023, the Houston Inspector General's Office released a letter stating that an investigation concluded that Edwards had inappropriately used his position to benefit himself and contractor Cortez Landscaping.

The MRA fired Edwards on May 31, 2023 due to allegations that he had an inappropriate relationship with a contractor. The Harris County District Attorney's Office began an investigation into Edwards in November 2023.

In a statement, the MRA said the accusations made today are “totally contrary to the values ​​and principles by which the MRA operates.”

“The MRA has taken comprehensive measures to strengthen all financial and procurement controls to ensure public confidence and delivery of the affordable housing program,” the MRA said.

The authority had provided all elements of its internal investigation to the district attorney and other authorities – ultimately referring its investigation to the Harris County district attorney in November of last year.

“This criminal activity will not be tolerated,” Mayor John Whitmire said at the news conference Friday. “My office, the inspector general's office, all of our department heads have been put on notice that we will not tolerate this.”

“And I will add that we have already discussed the process of reviewing all TIRZs in the City of Houston,” he continued.

Since 2016, Third Ward residents Ed Pettitt and Brian Van Tubergen noticed something was wrong with the MRA's work in their community. After years of research, Van Tubergen filed a formal complaint in 2022 with the Office of Inspector General, accusing Edwards of waste, fraud or abuse.

Brian Van Tubergen, left, and Edward D. Pettitt II, right, pose for a portrait on an empty Midtown Redevelopment Authority lot in the Third Ward neighborhood of Houston, Texas, on October 31, 2023. (Danielle Villasana for Houston Landing)

“It felt like we were arguing in front of a brick wall for the entire previous administration because no one was willing to hold the Midtown Redevelopment Authority accountable,” Pettitt said in an interview with the Landing. “I would like to thank Mayor Whitmire and Kim Ogg for leading this investigation and securing the indictment against these individuals.”

The two men attended the press conference Friday and Ogg called their work a “Batman Robin team.”

“I think the Midtown problem is just the tip of the iceberg,” Pettitt said.

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