Who Is Nate Gray?

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Richard Connelly tucked away the following blurb near the end of his “Hairballs” column in last week’s Houston Press:

When most Houstonians hear the name “East Cleveland,” they may find themselves surprised that the tiny Montgomery County town of Cleveland has a suburb.

But, it turns out, there is also a city of sorts named Cleveland, in a state called “Ohio.” And that Cleveland has a suburb to the east, an impoverished, mostly minority enclave of 27,000.

Why the geography lesson? Because the politics of East Cleveland may come to play an intriguing role in the politics of Houston.

Mayor Emmanuel Onunwor was convicted last month of bribery, racketeering and tax fraud, the charges stemming from an FBI investigation of businessman Nate Gray. Gray was videotaped handing envelopes stuffed with cash to the mayor, apparently to further the interests of CH2M Hill, a company running the city’s water department.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that wiretaps of Gray have led to “so many different fruitful veins of investigation,” triggering probes in Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans — and Houston.

There are indeed some local connections. CH2M Hill is involved in the Port of Houston Authority’s mammoth Bayport project, and it has its nose fully in the City Hall trough. In 1999 the city paid $1.6 million for the company to develop a “strategic plan” for its water system, an amount later amended to $2.5 million, which is a pretty nice amendment. A year later it got a $3.5 million design contract.

Gray also owns Etna Parking, which has a piece of the contract for shuttling car-rental customers at Bush Intercontinental Airport. A “Nate Gray” gave $500 to Mayor Bill White’s campaign in December.

Whether anything comes of this is difficult to say — Gray didn’t return calls, and the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s office in Cleveland refused comment.

There may be something there, or there may be nothing. This is the sort of thing that former Press reporter Tim Fleck was good at fleshing out.

A search of the Houston Chronicle archives did not turn up any reference to this story.

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