Port of Houston warned about secret meetings

June 29, 2011 2:30:22 AM PDT
There's a warning tonight for the folks who run the Port of Houston -- cut out the secret meetings or else. And it comes as the Port tries to keep details of a lucrative security guard contract a secret from you. They're recording their meetings now. Maybe it's a new day of transparency here at the Port of Houston, because it sure sounded today like a mutiny was growing against Port secrecy.

"I'm learning more about what's going on here at the Port of Houston from Wayne Dolcefino and from the Houston Chronicle than I'm learning anywhere at the Port Authority," Port Commissioner Elyse Lanier said.

The chairman's face tells you all you need to know about the tension here. The latest ethics trouble at the Port is that new lucrative contract for unarmed guards. They're front line of the Port's security defense.

The company that won the job for three more years already had it, and the port says they've done a good job.

But you see this guy? Turns out that Port security supervisor who helped evaluate the bids may have had a conflict of interest. State records show his son was already on the payroll of one of the companies that stood to benefit from the deal.

"There is really a very significant question, in my mind, as to what the facts are as to the significance of this purported conflict of interest," outside Port lawyer David Brown said.

Of course, the Port was paying yet another outside lawyer on Tuesday to brief commissioners. One big problem: that letter detailing the allegations was dated in late April. Some Port commissioners only found out in the last few days.

"I expect to know about incidents like this in 30 minutes," Port Commissioner Jimmy Burke said.

"Probably being a little bit more sensitive to the fact that we're under public scrutiny right now and making sure that we inform a little bit more promptly to our commissioners would have been very beneficial in this instance," Port of Houston CEO Alec Dreyer said.

It's not just a question of security. This unarmed guard contract will cost you $14. 8 million over the next three years, but apparently the Port doesn't think you have a right to know who else wanted the job or how much less they wanted to charge.

"Is this place an open book or not?" we asked Dreyer. "I think we're very open and transparent," he replied. "Well then let's open the book. Let's open the book today, before the day is out. We want the names of everyone who competed. We want to see the proposal," we told Dreyer. "This is your chance to show us it's an open book." "I understand what your request is and the attorney general will rule on that," Dreyer said.

But we do know none thing. The company chosen did not have the lowest price.

"My calculation was that the price difference was about four percent," Brown said.

Four percent sounds small, doesn't it? But in dollars and cents that's about $600,000.

"Obviously, there has to be more transparency here," Assistant Harris County Attorney Terry O'Rourke said.

And get this. Port commissioners apparently tried to hold a secret meeting on Tuesday that may have violated state law. As county investigators probing the Port were in the building. They changed their minds after getting warned.

"So the question I had for them is, 'Are you guys trying to go to jail?'" O'Rourke said.

The district attorney is already investigating the Port, including the Port chairman, who got a Saharan vacation and a consulting deal from a Port vendor. He denies doing anything wrong.


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