13 Undercover

Port of Houston officials in hot water?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Major fireworks tonight, and the fire is being aimed at top officials of the Port of Houston. Now, the fate of both the chairman and the port president are in play.

Developments are coming fast and furious now in the wake of 13 Undercover reports of possible ethics violations, conflicts of interest and questionable spending.

First the developments in just the last few hours: Two port commissioners are demanding to discuss the future employment of the Port President Alec Dreyer. He's paid $359,000 a year. The letter decries the chairman of the board's plans to try to hire another outside law firm of his choosing to investigate his conduct. The port's legal bills are already $23 million the last two years.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Jack Morman has asked the county attorney to review the Port's compliance with state laws.

This as the mayor issues an ultimatum.

New volunteers ready to tackle a brutal regime. News hundreds have died trying to flee on a boat from the Port of Tripoli. Six thousand miles from there, the fallout has triggered an ethics scandal here at the Port of Houston.

"Did you ride a camel then?" we asked Pot of Houston Chairman Jim Edmonds. "I did not ride a camel," Edmonds said.

But Edmonds did take a Saharan vacation with executives of a port vendor, AECOM -- a company with a reported half a billion dollars in business with Libya.

"I thought it was once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Edmonds said.

Days visiting African historical sites that were hundreds of years old, and Mr. Edmonds got to do it all free.

"Do you consider that a gift?" we asked Edmonds.

"No, not really," he said.

"Why not?"

"They were going to go anyway."

For the next two years, Edmonds steered the port toward a consulting deal with Libya. And in late 2010 the AECOM hired Edmonds as a Texas consultant.

"The nexus between Libya and AECOM and Port and the chairman raises lots of questions," Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said.

"And I believe he has a significant conflict of interest that has to be addressed," Houston Mayor Annise Parker said.

But Edmonds got a legal opinion saying he was clear of conflict as long as he disclosed his ties and wasn't involved in any AECOM Port dealings.

"I thought an outside independent lawyer would be more appropriate," Edmonds said.

Turns out the Edmonds got the port to pay for that lawyer, whose firm was already special counsel to the Port of Houston.

"It makes it questionable, there's no doubt about that," Emmett said.

"He should give up the contract or give up his job as Port chairman," Parker said.

But he's not the only port official who is facing tough questions.

"Alec Dreyer really needs a better answer for what happened there," Emmett said.

On the S.S. Sam Houston, the port president requested a catered boat trip for a friend and a fellow director of an energy company he works for. Public tours were even cut short that day.

"There can't be special favors," Parker said.

Even though emails called it "Alec's trip," when we asked to see the records of the special cruises, Dreyer's name was removed. The trip was falsely represented as requested by a government agency.

"Changing an official government record is a violation. There needs to be an investigation as to whether there was an intent to deceive," Parker said.

"I was absolutely not involved in ordering any change to any schedule with respect to any special cruises on the MV Sam Houston. I was not involved in that," Dreyer said.

The cost of the catering was reimbursed seven months after the trip by the woman the boat party was thrown for.

"Probably what he should have done is say you know what, that was a screw up, I admit it. Shouldn't have done it," Emmett said.

This coming after our revelations about spending, lavish entertainment, enormous first-class travel bills.

"Wayne, I was quite honestly shocked," Harris County Commissioner Jack Morman said.

You can see the Port fight now underway by reading previous 13 Undercover reports in the "Related Links" section of this story, but the pressure is clearly building at the Port O Plenty. From its operations, the port has amassed $200 million in cash and short-term investments, while the county's Port tax to pay for its debts has nearly doubled in the last five years.

(Copyright ©2014 KTRK-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved.)

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