In Focus

Houston port officials spent thousands on alcohol, food

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Just when we thought we couldn't be surprised by spending at the Port of Houston, we took one last look. Millions of your dollars were spent, all while the port knew state lawmakers were scrutinizing every penny.

As the sun set above the state capital on September 4 last year, lawmakers were getting set to question the Port of Houston about claims of mismanagement and lavish spending. But that night, a group of port brass were holed up at Austin's Roaring Fork.

On the night before testifying about lavish spending, the then port chairman opted for the most expensive thing on the menu -- a $57 steak. You paid for it. You can't make this up.

"How do you change that culture?" we asked State Sen. Dan Patrick.

"Exposing it, hopefully embarrassing people," he replied.

One of the main issues in the report former port chairman Jim Edmonds was testifying about was how the port spends your money in what they call the Promotion and Development Fund. The state report said "The harm to (the port's) public image likely exceeds any benefit ... from (some of the spending)."

We looked through all $3.8 million of Promotion and Development spending for 2012, when you'd think they'd be on their best behavior.

"The taxpayers ought to be angry," Houston Sen. John Whitmire said.

How about $3,700 for dinner at Del Frisco's on March 28 while entertaining a foreign delegation to the port? That's nearly $300 per person.

"The tip alone was $575, and he was kind enough to add another $50," Patrick said.

And they did it again the next night -- the same tab, per person. All of it on your tab, but this time at Perry's Steakhouse.

The port says those fancy meals sealed the deal on a giant contract.

"It's the value of the contract. It was a small investment in order to bring that business to the Port of Houston and generate that economic development," said Phyllis Saathoff with Port of Houston's Corporate Affairs department.

"So the ends justify the means?" we asked.

"Yes," she replied.

"They still spend money like drunks," Whitmire said.

And here's one you, nor Patrick, won't soon forget: Last fall, while they knew state auditors were watching, the port plunked down nearly $172,000 of your tax dollars on a party for 2,500 customers. It included two hours of open bar with the good booze, a little bit of food and a contract line that practically made Patrick's eyes pop out: "Bartender will be assigned to serve chairman and commissioners."

"Look, I just had a daughter that god married, I kind of know how these things work. This is a big waste of money," Patrick said.

Private bartenders for the port bosses -- two weeks after the Sunset Commission told them to control their spending. You paid for the bartenders, and you paid for the drinks, too.

"There were multiple bartenders available for this particular event, and there was one that apparently was noted that port commissioners could go to and he would recognize," Saathoff said.

The port says it was a separate bartender, not a private bartender. Whatever they call it, you paid for it.

"Will a bartender be assigned to commissioners next time?" we asked Saathoff.

"No," she said.

On Tuesday at their meeting, port commissioners approved a new policy they say will better regulate this kind of spending.

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

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