Federal investigation into bribery of Houston contracts underway

A federal bribery investigation that led a former Houston Health Department employee to plead guilty to taking kickbacks earlier this week is ongoing and could lead to charges against local business owners, according to court documents.

Barry Barnes, former administrative and community outreach coordinator for the city’s health department, pleaded guilty to a single charge of bribery and admitted to pocketing at least $24,200 in kickbacks — ranging from $900 to $5,500 — for helping of three companies to win contracts with the city and get paid.

Barnes’ sentencing is set for January 26, 2023, court records show. However, his attorney, Michael Wynne, said Friday that the court and federal prosecutors indicated they would continue Barnes’ conviction beyond that date to give the government time to consider charges against other individuals who may be involved in this case or related matters.

The prosecutor declined to comment on the ongoing investigation on Friday.

Court documents reviewed by the Houston Chronicle do not name any of the companies involved and refer only to the contractors as “Company A”, “Company B” and “Company C”. However, The Chronicle was able to match the payment amounts and dates mentioned in the billing documents with the city bill and payout details of three specific suppliers.

Barnes’ alleged bribery scheme with “Company A” lasted more than a year, from November 2019 to March 2021. He received multiple payments totaling at least $21,500 from the company for helping them land six contracts worth approximately $911,000. , according to the indictment document. Three of the contracts involved federal COVID-19 pandemic funds as part of the city’s emergency purchase process.

City records point to Neutral Grey, a branding company, as Company A. The list of city payments to the unidentified contractor in the document includes $61,800 in October 2020, $85,200 in November 2020, $159,956 in December 2020, and $160,044 in January 2021 City bills show payments to Neutral Gray that match those amounts and dates. Each bill was signed by Barnes.

In addition, the city’s July 2020 list of emergency expenses includes a payment of $474,276 to Neutral Gray, which matches the criminal complaint’s description of bills “totalling $474,276 for services to the Houston Health Department.”

Attempts to reach Neutral Gray owner Stephanie Coleman on Thursday and Friday failed.

READ MORE: Former Houston Health Department official pleads guilty to bribery and admits $24,000 in bribe

Under his plea deal, Barnes also admitted to helping “Company B” in December 2020, selecting it to provide advertising services for the health department. Barnes acknowledged helping the company obtain a $30,000 payment on December 11, and took $5,000 in return, according to the plea deal.

The city’s payout records show that Melodrama Boutique, a women’s fashion retailer in Houston, was the only seller to receive a payment of that exact amount on December 11, 2020. The Chronicle also got the city bill, which matched the details and descriptions in the plea deal. Jackie Adams, the boutique owner, did not respond to calls for comment.

Investigators also cited a January 2021 incident where Barnes allegedly accepted a $5,000 bribe for helping a third-party company get a $35,000 payment from the city for advertising services, the plea agreement shows.

A company called Black Public Radio, with a listed address on Kirby Drive, is the only contractor with payment and billing information that exactly matches court records. The company did not respond to emails and calls for comment.

As part of the plea deal, Barnes agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors and waive his Fifth Amendment rights, meaning he cannot refuse to answer questions while investigators continue to pursue related charges. He also agreed to lose at least $24,200.

He remains free on a $50,000 bond.

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