Are city airport deals costing you money?

July 27, 2009 9:28:34 PM PDT
The city controller warns the mayor that the city may be in for a rough ride at the airport. For years, a city spin-off company traveled the world looking for consulting jobs for Houston airport employees. Now they have the jobs, but the city has no idea where the money is flowing, and it may cost you in the end. The City of Houston runs airports on the north side and on the south side, too, but city employees are also building or managing airports in Costa Rica and Ecuador.

There's the Ecuador airport, which is not built yet, but city employees have been there for years as part of a deal with a company city council created in 2001.

The idea back then was to sell city airport employees' expertise and make some money for Houston.

"This was supposed to be simple," said City Controller Annise Parker.

The separate group, called HASDC, traveled the world looking for airport development work and when it got a contract, Houston airport employees were assigned to it.

While working abroad, Houston employees were paid their normal wage, but the private company reimbursed the city nearly twice that.

Confused? So is Parker.

"We don't know what the hell is going on," said Parker.

Parker can't get HASDC to hand over financial documents and HASDC's auditors can't sign off on them either because in addition to the work the private company is doing in Ecuador and Costa Rica, it's set up two more private companies in the British Virgin Islands, far away from American auditors.

Parker has no idea what those deals are or where the money is. Without that, Parker is worried the city's financial rating could suffer.

"We are increasingly concerned particularly that HASDC has had problems getting their financials in order for at least four years," said Parker.

Much of this is untangling due to the work of Texas Watchdog, a group of independent Houston-based reporters.

"The biggest concern is the mystery," said Trent Siebert, Texas Watchdog Editor.

Siebert has been fighting with the city for weeks to get information turned over.

The city says it is investigating HASDC, and City Hall even hired a pricy law firm to help, but the confusion over what airport executives are doing in far-flung foreign countries continues.

"We don't know, the public doesn't know, and the saddest thing is that City Hall doesn't know," said Siebert.

An HASDC Lawyer told us that they are cooperating and that none of the deals are costing your money. In fact, they claim the deals could make the city big money one day. In the last ten years though, HASDC has turned over about $70,000 in profit to the city.

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