Bill King: Turner accepts $50,000 in campaign contributions from strip clubs while human trafficking flourishes in Houston

Image credit: Bill King

Mayoral candidate Bill King released the following this week:

In what is unquestionably the most disturbing pay-to-play discovery to date, we have uncovered that Sylvester Turner has accepted approximately $50,000 in campaign contributions from the owners of Houston’s most notorious strip clubs.  This represents a new moral low for our city.  As nearly as I have been able to determine, no mayor or mayoral candidate in the City’s history has ever taken money from this group.  Houston already has a reputation as the nation’s capital for human trafficking.  Having the mayor of our city accept these contributions will only make that reputation worse.

You can review the list of campaign contributions [here].  I suspect this is not all the contributions Turner has accepted from sexually oriented businesses.  As you will see they are not easy to identify from the campaign reports because the donors normally do not identify themselves as the owners of a sexual oriented businesses.  Several of the wives of owners are only identified on the campaign reports as “housewife.”  So, I have probably missed some.  I am particularly suspicious I have missed contributions from the owners of the so-called massage parlors.  (I will be writing more on that topic soon.)

Among the donors on the list of topless clubs helping to fill Turner’s campaign war chest are the owners of Treasures, which the City sued in 2012. In that suit the City alleged:

“Treasures knowingly maintains a place where human trafficking regularly occurs . . . Treasures allows pimps to traffic their women inside Treasures . . . through force, fraud or coercion pimps cause these women to engage in prostitution.  Treasures knowingly receives a benefit from participating in the prostitution trafficking venture.” [Click here to see the entire pleading.]

The issue of accepting campaign contributions from strip club owners has come up before. County Judge Lina Hidalgo received a contribution in 2018 from the owners of Treasures but had the good sense and moral compass to return the contribution.  In 2012, a donation from the owners of Treasures became an issue in the race for Harris County Sheriff.  Robert Miller, a regular contributor to Turner’s campaign, told the Houston Chronicle then that a “contribution of this nature certainly would appear to be troubling if you were, perhaps, a female, or family-values oriented.”  It will be interesting to see how Turner’s other campaign contributors feel about their names appearing on the same list as these strip club owners.

Turner’s decision to accept these contributions is particularly troubling because of a 2013 settlement between the City and the strip clubs. Under the “Sweet 16” agreement, the clubs pay approximately $1 million per year to the City. In return, the City stopped enforcing the rules that prohibited lap dances and other touching between the performers and customers. The agreement also allowed the dancers at the Sweet 16 clubs to perform fully topless and even exempted the clubs from registering as sexual oriented businesses.

Strip clubs other than the Sweet 16 are still required to comply with the city ordinances on sexually oriented businesses.  Several of these clubs have recently sued the City to be included in the sweetheart deal.  Two of the clubs hoping to be included the Sweet 16 agreement also contributed to Turner’s campaign.

The Sweet 16 agreement is set to expire in 2020 and the mayor at that time will have, at least according to the City Attorney’s opinion, the unilateral right to renew or cancel it.[i]  Houstonians overwhelmingly oppose this agreement and want to see it end. But these contributions certainly make it appear the strip club owners are trying to buy influence and ensure the lax regulation of their businesses will continue.

There are those who attempt to defend this agreement because of the payment the strip clubs make to the City – dollars that are supposed to be used to fight human trafficking.

First, $1 million is a drop in the bucket compared to what we need to fight what most agree is the worst human trafficking problem in the country.  Second, I do not think our great City has sunk so low that we must get in bed with this industry to protect the young women victimized by this industry.  To put the payments in context, they represent .02% of the City budget.

But even worse is that there is a real question whether this money has really been used to beef up human trafficking enforcement, as promised. When the Sweet 16 deal was inked in 2013, HPD total personnel was 6,605 with 5,262 classified officers.  As of March 31, 2019, its total personnel was 6,326 and it had 5,220 classified officers, drops of 279 and 42, respectively.

Also, according to the City payroll run of January 31, 2019, only two police officers, with combined salaries of about $135,000, are paid from the fund.  I don’t know how many officers we had working on human trafficking in 2013, but presumably it was, at least, two.

The City has objected to our Open Records request on how the money paid by the strip clubs has been spent with the Attorney General claiming that information is “confidential.”

In light of the discovery of these contributions, I am calling on Turner to:

  1. Return all contributions from any person who operates a sexually-oriented business and commit not to take any additional contributions.
  2. To disclose in detail exactly how his administration is spending the payments received for the strip clubs.
  3. Sign a written commitment not to renew the Sweet 16 agreement when it expires in 2020.

Also, I would also ask every Houstonian to support the End Pay-to-Play petition drive.  One of the provisions of that proposed campaign finance ordinance amendment will ban contributions from sexually oriented businesses.  You can find out how you can volunteer or donate to that effort at [EPTP website.]

Houston is better than this.  Edmund Burke famously said that “all evil needs to prevail is that good men do nothing.”  Join our campaign today to not “do nothing.”

[i] Because the agreement was a settlement of pending litigation, the City Attorney’s office has ruled, incorrectly in my opinion, that the Mayor has the right to approve or extend the agreement without a vote by City Council.

blogHOUSTON publishes occasional news releases of interest to our readers.