Last year, investigative reporter Mario Diaz for KPRC in Houston revealed that Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) had requested storage of the collection in a county-owned shed in his precinct. Although the art is privately owned, the county spent at least $16,000 in public funds to transport the art and additional funds of an estimated $15,000 to fumigate the collection and the building for African powder beetles.
Prior to the transport, the county also paid more than $250,000 in renovations to the property that included roof repairs, climate control and security technology, and parking lot improvements
Through an attorney specifically hired to handle the issue after public outcry, Ellis has said the art is part of a “broader arts program.” The collection, however, is not available for public viewing. Reportedly the commissioner has taken select individuals to the facility for private tours, but has not clearly answered questions about who actually owns the collection.
Records also indicate that no one has paid property taxes on the collection consisting of more than 1,000 pieces of allegedly priceless art, and there are no documents available detailing the source or value. At least one person has filed a claim with the county attorney saying she had sold some of the pieces to the owner of a now defunct art trading company known as African Art Global, but that checks for payment bounced.
Although questions regarding the collection surfaced nearly a year ago, and reportedly the county district attorney’s office and the FBI are investigating, few answers have been made available to the public.
Now, state Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) has filed new legislation targeting this and similar issues.
Bettencourt’s Senate Bill 252 calls for a strengthening of code to allow public servants to be charged with Abuse of Official Capacity when violating the public interest by storing non-government personal property at government expense without public benefit. The bill specifically mentions storage of artwork as an offense, and would allow for the Texas attorney general to conduct a concurrent investigation.
“We cannot allow elected officials to store private property of unknown origin, install high-tech security, and pay for parking lot improvements with hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars that we know of, and this must be stopped,” said Bettencourt.
“This is an intolerable situation to taxpayers, and it must be resolved by action from either the district attorney’s office or if this bill passes, by the attorney general’s office.”
Bettencourt told The Texan that since he announced his bill, he has been approached by area residents expressing support, including a concerned immigrant family.
“The most interesting story came from a business owner who moved here from an African nation and who said in his home country after he had complained about government officials using public money like this, he had been told to leave for his own safety. The man said he did not expect to find such arrangements here.”
Under current law, the penalty for Abuse of Official Capacity offenses ranges from a Class C Misdemeanor for property valued under $100 to a first-degree felony for property valued at above $300,000. Bettencourt’s bill further clarifies that such abuses are a crime and subject to investigation and penalty.
The county has not reported any appraisal of the artwork which has been stored in the shed at Reed Road since at least the summer of 2019.
Ellis says he hired private attorney Chris Feldman to help “clear it up,” and is reportedly paying Feldman from his campaign account.
The Harris County District Attorney’s Office did not return a request for comment by the time of publication.