It remained unclear Thursday who will pay for a $124,000 book exalting Mayor Sylvester Turner that was distributed at his final State of the City address.
Officials were adamant about one thing, however. It won’t be taxpayers.
Those statements came after a 24-hour period in which a former campaign rival’s assertion that Turner had pressured Houston First Corporation officials to pay for the book kicked off scrutiny of its cost.
Houston First’s board chairman and chief executive officer denied any arm-twisting on Turner’s part. They did acknowledge, however, that the bill for the book will force them to ask for more private donations to cover the cost of a glitzy event that well exceeded its $602,000 budget.
Turner gave his swan-song speech to hundreds of business and civic leaders at a luncheon in the city-owned Marriott Marquis in September. In addition to the speech, guests were given a book about Turner titled “A Winning Legacy – The Power of Vision, Collaboration, Resilience and Transformation.”
At 90 pages, the book makes few attempts at editorial distance from Turner.
“Not content to achieve a little bit here and a little bit there, he pursued sweeping, transformational change, achieving it on multiple fronts to become a nationally sought-after thought leader on matters of civic importance,” the book says at one point.
The book had attracted little scrutiny until this week when it appeared on Thursday’s agenda for the board of Houston First, a city-affiliated local government corporation whose directors are appointed by the mayor.
According to the agenda item, the city asked Houston First, which serves as Houston’s convention and marketing agency, to foot the bill for the design, production and printing of 600 copies of the book.
Debate over the book erupted Wednesday after former Kemah mayor and Houston mayoral candidate Bill King alleged in a blog post that Turner was “pressuring” Houston First President and CEO Michael Heckman to pay for the book.
King unsuccessfully ran for mayor against Turner in 2015 and 2019. His blog post, which cited unnamed sources, offered no evidence for his assertions.
On Thursday, Houston First board chair David Mincberg abruptly pulled his request to have the agency pay for the book’s cost.
Mincberg told the board that he placed the item on the agenda only to clear up “rumors.”
Despite the hubbub, Mincberg said it had never been the intention of anyone at the corporation to use public funds to pay for the book.
Nor would any taxpayer dollars be spent, he said. Since all of the $547,000 in private donations raised to cover the event’s cost have been spent, corporation officials plan to make the rounds with corporate sponsors to cover the costs of the book.
A budget provided by Houston First suggests that even without the book, the $602,000 in event expenses already had exceeded revenues.
In a statement, city spokesperson Mary Benton said the responsibility for any cost overruns lies with Houston First.
“Houston First collected the revenue and was responsible for paying the expenses, including the book, production costs, and other items that accompany hosting an event. Mayor Turner has asked Houston First to provide a full accounting of all expenses and explain why it chose to single out the cost of the legacy book,” Benton said.
Speaking to reporters after the board meeting, Mincberg said he did not know whether Houston First had agreed to cover the cost of the book from the start.
Mincberg said he only became aware that the book was an issue within the last 10 days. Houston First CEO Michael Heckman said he had no idea who came up with the book in the first place.
“That wasn’t our project, we didn’t lead that project, so I don’t really have details about how that came about,” he said.
Heckman denied that Turner had pressured him to pay the cost of the book, as King alleged.
“I continue to have an excellent relationship with the mayor, as I have throughout my entire tenure as CEO,” he said.
Heckman spoke at the September luncheon, which served as an opportunity for Turner to burnish his legacy before his second and final term ends Dec. 31. According to a program, the event’s co-chairs were Cindy Clifford, a registered lobbyist, and Frazier Wilson, an executive at Shell Oil Company.
The event’s presenting sponsors were CenterPoint Energy, the Houston Hospitality Alliance, IKE Smart City, Jacobs and Shell.
This story has been updated with comments from Houston First’s board chairman and chief executive officer.