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Harris County District Attorney’s Office announced Friday that a former staffer and two contractors involved with the Midtown Redevelopment Authority were arrested on public corruption charges.

Todd Edwards, the former real estate manager who was accused of “inappropriately” using his oversight of millions of dollars in authority landscaping funds to benefit himself, and authority contractors, Veronica Ugorji and Kenneth Jones, were charged in the “scheme to steal and misuse of about $8.5 million in public funds from the MRA.”  

“Now Mr. Edwards and his co-defendants' scheme to steal and misuse this money has resulted in first degree felony charges against each of them,” said Harris County District Attorney, Kim Ogg, at a press conference Friday. “All of those charges carry up to life sentences. Unfortunately, our tax dollars meant to improve the lives of Houstonians were spent on flashy cars, nice houses, super living, trips and pornography.”

Edward D. Pettitt II sifts through a trash pile on an empty Midtown Redevelopment Authority lot located in the Third Ward neighborhood of Houston, Texas.
Danielle Villasana/Abdelraoufsinno

For years, residents complained that the authority’s ultimate goal to empty lots in Third Ward to build affordable housing was not going according to plan. The lots sat empty for years, covered in overgrown vegetation despite big landscaping contracts. Residents pointed fingers at Edwards and in early October 2023, Houston’s Office of Inspector General 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 over allegations that he had an inappropriate relationship with a contractor. The Harris County’s District Attorney’s Office began an investigation into Edwards in November 2023.

In a statement, the MRA said that the charges brought forward today are “entirely contrary to the values and principles under which the MRA operates.”

“The MRA has taken comprehensive steps to enhance all financial and procurement controls to ensure public trust and execution of the affordable housing program,” the MRA said.

The authority had provided all materials from its internal investigation to the District Attorney and other authorities – eventually referring its investigation to the Harris County DA in November last year.

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

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

Since 2016, Third Ward residents Ed Pettitt and Brian Van Tubergen noticed something wasn’t right with the MRA’s work in their community. After years of sleuthing, Van Tubergen filed an official complaint in 2022 with the Office of Inspector General, accusing Edwards of waste, fraud or abuse.

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

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

Both men attended the press conference on Friday with Ogg calling their work a “batman robin team.”

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

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Elena Bruess covers the environment for the Abdelraoufsinno. She comes to Houston after two years at the San Antonio Express-News, where she covered the environment, climate and water. Elena previously...