Ex-port PR director gets $380,000 severance deal

May 14, 2011 5:19:40 AM PDT
If you quit your job, would anyone give you $380,000? That's the severance deal at the core of the growing scandal at the Port of Houston. And now, there are new major developments. The Harris County attorney's office announced Friday that a task force of investigators will examine the Port to see if it's cheating taxpayers.

[Madonna song and video from Evita Peron movie" 'Don't cry for me Argentina. The truth is I never left."]

Maybe that's what Argentina James could be saying.

"I wish to move on with my life as a private citizen and that's all I have to say," James told 13 Undercover.

She was the PR director at the Port of Houston, and when she resigned last year, boy did she get a deal.

"In a recession, the severance package they gave Argentina James, it was an embarrassment," Former Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt said.

A severance worth $380,000.

"No comment. Thank you," James told us.

She got a $30,000 lump sum payment, $20,000 more for health insurance for an entire year and a $330,000 guaranteed consulting deal -- $15,000 a month.

"It was way, way too generous," Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said.

The Port O Plenty has plenty of good will; since January 2009, $1.7 million in donations, sponsorships and advertising, including here at Channel 13. The slogan, of course, "The Port Delivers the Goods".

"Did you misuse any Port funds while you were there?" we asked James.

"Wayne, I left the Port six months ago. I left the Port with a great track record, great work ethic, and no I did not," she replied.

As Port PR chief, Argentina James helped decide who got the money, and it turns out, the Port gave tens of thousands of dollars to organizations James was personally involved in, like the Ensemble Theatre, and when her kids basketball team was thousands short for a tournament, emails show a Port vendor hired by James came through with a $1,500 donation

A few days later the vendor asked James, "Were the Panthers happy with the sponsorship?" James replies, "Yup!"

The donors to that basketball team included two PR firms with Port contracts.

"I'm not familiar with any relationship between the former employee and any of our consulting arrangements. I can't comment on what the purposes were," Port of Houston President Alec Dreyer said.

These documents show her using Port email soliciting money for some of her favorite organizations, including some folks with clear ties to the Port.

"Nice ride, but I'm hungry. Where are the fajitas?" 13 Undercover wondered while aboard the SS Sam Houston.

But it may have been a trip on the Port boat that caused her trouble.

"Well, again, it's our practice. We don't discuss or disclose anything about former employees," Dreyer said.

A was this catered trip for her kids' basketball team. And yes, there were fajitas. Heavily redacted Port legal bills show Attorney Gene Locke was paid $37,000 to handle the terms of her departure deal.

"As part of my severance agreement, I agreed not to get into particulars and I wish to respect that and honor that," James told 13 Undercover.

The Ship Channel is almost 100 years old. Maybe that's why history long-standing practice is so difficult to break at the Port.

"It is a culture that's very, very difficult to break," Houston Mayor Annise Parker said.

Take the Port's paid internship program. Summer employment for college kids for those who want to make the maritime business their business.

"That's why it's been the Port Authority's practice for a number of years to recruit family members and friends to work as interns in our summer program," Dreyer said.

And you know who made more than $4,000 last summer as a maintenance intern at the Port? Alec Dreyer's son.

"I don't interview. I didn't hire. I don't handle any of the hiring of our interns," Dreyer said.

And when we questioned those catered cruises with booze on the Sam Houston for the handpicked few...

"Yes, there's alcohol provided on the MV Sam Houston. That's been a long-standing practice," Dreyer said.

Tell that to the tourists and taxpayers who take the tour of the Ship Channel every day.

"That's my money. They got it from me," taxpayer Sandy Waldmiller said.

Harris Count taxpayers pay for the debt on Port projects and that's costing $10 million more than it did last year. This, while the port has more than $200 million in cash and investments on hand, and that is sparking talk it's time for the Port to pay its own way. State lawmakers are already talking about changes at the Port O Plenty.


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