From an empty cruise terminal to their expensive tastes in food and wine, the folks at the Port of Houston had it pretty good -- until we came along. And if Harris County has the way, the Port of Plenty days are over.
Why worry? We only spent $106 million on a cruise terminal and now we can't get a single cruise ship to dock there. Your tax money just plain wasted.
"Bottom line, change at Port of Plenty or else," we told Harris County Pct. 2 Commissioner Jack Morman.
"Absolutely, no doubt about it," he replied.
Our Port of Plenty investigation began when Argentina James quit her pricey PR job at the Port of Houston last year. She got a severance deal worth up to $380,000 -- unheard of.
"No comment, thank you," she told us.
She got $15,000 a month to consult, even if she didn't do a thing.
What a deal. Now the county attorney's office investigation says that's not proper for a government worker and may violate the state constitution.
"I grew up with port in my backyard my whole life as a kid. I's vital to the economy," Morman said.
It was Commissioner Jack Morman who asked the county attorney to investigate in the wake of our reporting. He calls the critical report a gift to the port.
"If they take it and implement it, they can restore public trust and confidence they quite honestly so quickly lost," Morman said.
The port big wigs wont like what they read. The county attorney says they make too much money, from the top down. Seventeen administrative employees at port make a base salary of $150,000 or more. And outside PR and law firms still make millions too, especially the law firms -- $6 million for just one case.
"If they expect the taxpayers to give them another dime, whether it's in the form of another bond election, then they've got to do better," Morman said.
And the report says the folks at the port are just too secretive.
"A de facto policy of conducting much of its business in closed sessions...out of the view of the public," according to the report.
"You just can't operate like that and expect to have public support and confidence," Morman said.
And they just can't admit they are a public agency, that all their money is your money. We got that message this spring from the chairman Jim Edmonds.
"You don't consider every dime here to be public money?" we had asked him.
"I do not," he replied.
"Really?" we asked.
"Really," he said.
But the report doesn't deal with Edmonds consulting deal with a port contractor or the use of port boats for employees' friends and family. The DA's been investigating that. And it doesn't even mention that cruise terminal, which costs you thousands of dollars every month to maintain.
But can the county force change? One port commissioner comes up for reappointment in the next month. That should be sign of who's really in charge.
The Port of Houston Authority issued the following statement in response to this story:
Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan has completed his review of the Port Authority as requested by County Commissioner Jack Morman, and has issued a report.
In the coming weeks and months, Port Commission Task Forces and the Port Commission itself will carefully review the County Attorney's report and consider appropriate measures, in a continuing effort to improve the vital work the Port Authority conducts to benefit Houston and Harris County, Texas and the nation.
The Port of Houston Authority is committed to continuing to fulfill its economic mandate put in place over one hundred years ago by Harris County voters and the Texas Legislature -- to create jobs and grow maritime trade, while maintaining the public's confidence and trust.