A Saharan vacation for the Houston port chairman

May 5, 2011 3:16:21 AM PDT
A Saharan vacation for the chairman of the Port of Houston with a company wanting lots of port business. 13 Undercover has a story about a question of ethics and new details of the Port's fascination with Libya.

From the Port of Houston, it is 6,000 miles to the Port of Tripoli, Libya. That's where Khamis Gadhafi and his dad Moammar come from. You know Khamis. He's the dictator's brutal son who got that special tour of the Port of Houston in January, just days before all this. Apparently that photo we showed you of a smiling Khamis and the Houston Port Chairman Jim Edmonds, well, it stung a little bit.

"I have an almost full-time, non-paying job. I have to make a living. I got two teenage kids. I get a phone call in the middle of the day and it says, 'Can you accommodate this guy from Libya?' I said, 'Yes.' Said 'Would you go out there?' I said, 'I'll try and do my best,'" Edmonds said.

How many of you have been to Libya? Jim Edmonds has.

"I thought it might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he said.

That's because Edmonds got to mix a little of your business with a little of his pleasure, a Saharan vacation.

"Did you ride a camel there?" we asked Edmonds.

"I did not ride a camel," he replied.

But he did get to get to see a piece of ancient history way out there in the desert, places like Sabha, Ghat the Acacus Mountains.

"It's a huge desert and there's some significance historically. Some of those trade routes are 400, 500, 600 years old," Edmonds said.

You can see prehistoric rock paintings, supposedly done before Christ was born.

"They are places of historical significance in that country and I had that invitation and thought I may never come back here and I would take advantage of that to see what was down there," Edmonds said.

"Who invited you?" we asked him.

"The AECOM people invited me," he said.

That's engineering giant AECOM. In 2007, that big Houston company had had signed a deal potentially worth half a billion dollars to do business in Libya. They are also a vendor at the Port of Houston.

And in February of 2009, at Libya's invitation, AECOM execs planned a big trip there. The Port of Houston chairman Jim Edmonds and a staffer went along.

Travel expenses are over $12,000 a piece, and a stay at the Corinthia Hotel, Libya's finest five-star hotel.

"It was not as nice as the other five-star hotels I've stayed in, I'll give you that," Edmonds said.

There was a dinner at the Marcus Aurelius Arch, built by the Greeks more than 1,800 years ago and a whole day for sightseeing at the architectural site called Leptis Magnus.

Days into the trip, the Port employee flies back to Houston, but Jim Edmonds, he stays.

There's a night in a villa with AECOM execs, then off with his new friends to the Saharan vacation.

You know the best part for Edmonds? It was totally free.

"They paid for you?" we asked him.

"Well yes, I guess. I don't know what kind of expense was involved in that," he replied.

And neither do we.

"These Saharan towns we're talking about are like dried desert mud-brick towns. They really don't have anything to do with port operations as best I can tell," Former Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt said.

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

"Not really, no," he said.

"Why not?"

"They were going to go anyway."

"If you want to take a junket, great, then write a check. That's what they should be doing," Bettencourt said.

The Port of Houston has an ethics policy. No commissioner shall agree to accept any benefit from a person the commissioner knows is interested in ... or likely to become interested in any PHA contract or transaction.

Libya consumed much of the Port's international consulting efforts the last two years. Look at the balance sheet of the Port's consulting arm -- $435,000 spent, $4,500 made -- none of it, by the way, from Libya.

Maybe chump change compared to the cruise terminal disaster, but another losing venture.

"Well, if you want to look at it from a balance sheet, sure. If you look at it in the bigger picture, it's the right thing to do," Edmonds said.

But for chairman Edmonds, the AECOM relationship may prove very lucrative after all. The engineering firm hired Edmonds' private company as a Texas consultant late last year for non-Port business.

"It's rampant reciprocity. It's bad public policy. It shouldn't have happened, period," Bettencourt said.

Edmonds says an independent lawyer gave him a legal opinion that he had no current conflict between his personal and port business and just couldn't vote on AECOM deals.

You know who paid for that lawyer? The Port of Houston did, and it's a firm making plenty of money at the port of plenty.


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