Houston mayoral candidate Bill King, joined by anti-human trafficking advocates, called on Sylvester Turner to return campaign contributions from owners of strip clubs and other sexually-oriented businesses regulated by the city.
“This is unquestionably the most disturbing pay-to-play discovery to date,” said King. “Accepting pay-to-play dollars from businesses that contribute to Houston’s reputation as the nation’s capital for human trafficking represents a new moral low for our city. I’m calling on Sylvester Turner to return the money he’s accepted from these individuals, as well as, cancel the so-called Sweet 16 agreement.”
A review of campaign finance records shows Turner has accepted nearly $50,000 from owners of strip clubs and other sexually oriented businesses since June 2015. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo received a contribution from one of these donors during the 2018 campaign, but promptly returned the money.
Among the donors contributing to Turner’s campaign are the owners of Treasures, which paid $102,000 to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission in 2011 to settle allegations of prostitution, drug use, and public lewdness. The City of Houston also sued Treasures in 2012. That lawsuit 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.”
Anti-trafficking advocate, Tracy Faulkner read a statement at the press conference from a trafficking survivor, who cannot speak directly to the media for safety reasons. Her statement reads in part, “There is a lot of money in this industry, and where there is money, there is blood... I have seen many lives lost in the commercial sex industry. And, I continue to see my sisters who are still in the life struggling to survive. Very few girls working at strip clubs or poker rooms want to be there. The ones who thought they wanted to choose that lifestyle realize very quickly they don't want to do it, but by that time they no longer have ‘a choice’.”
These pay-to-play allegations come as the so-called Sweet 16 agreement between the city and the city’s 16 largest strip clubs and sexually oriented businesses is set to expire next year. In 2013, the city entered into a settlement with the strip clubs in which the clubs pay approximately $1 million a year to the city. In return, the city stopped enforcing rules that prohibited lap dances, allowed dancers to be fully topless, and exempted the businesses from registering as sexually oriented businesses.
"The Sweet 16 deal is not sweet at all,” anti-trafficking advocate John Clark said. “In this case the strip clubs are allowed to operate under a less stringent set of rules because the money they pay is used for human trafficking prevention. That's like allowing some drug dealers to operate under less restrictive laws because they use some of their profits to help pay for drug prevention services. It's crazy.”
“Mayor Turner, the $50,000 you have received, has stained your hands and has opened a wide door to the human trafficking corruption and immorality of our city,” said Pastor Hernan Castano of the Houston Area Pastor Council. “We ask you if you have any dignity and respect for our city, to return that filthy money with the smell of corruption that has polluted Houston. Cancel the ‘Sweet 16’ contract.”
King pledged to refuse all campaign contributions from owners of sexually oriented businesses and called on Turner and all other candidates for city office to do the same. He also reiterated his commitment to the End Pay to Play petition drive to restrict campaign contributions from companies seeking city contracts and committed to not renew the Sweet 16 agreement when it expires in 2020.