Commission recommends sweeping changes to Port Authority

August 4, 2012 4:57:07 AM PDT
The Port of Plenty is getting a prescription for winning back public trust. It is one of the nation's biggest ports, the engine for Houston's economy. But a lot of you don't like the way they spend money, especially after 13 Undercover reports last year.

After our investigation, State Sen. John Whitmire had seen enough. He got the state Sunset Commission to review the port from top to bottom, and now the folks on the east side have been shown how to clean up their act.

When 13 Undercover gave the port its Port of Plenty nickname, it was all about the spending -- the restaurant receipts, extravagant hotel bills.

"The idea of having this open-ended slush fund that can be spent on anything, that day should be gone," port critic Paul Bettencourt said.

The port does have to spend money to entertain clients but state examiners now say some of the port's spending has "blemished its reputation." It's scrutiny deserved.

$23,327 on hotel rooms during a New York trade mission, more than $900 a room; $6,600 for a comedian to entertain folks at some port luncheons. You got to love the government.

"They don't get it, that enough is enough, that times have changed, that there will be accountability," Whitmire said.

Whitmire had seen enough after our stories last year exposed the port's million dollar business with the Gahdafi regime. He got the state ball rolling. The report results were first exposed by 13 Undercover on our website. The first sentence, "The Port of Houston authority is not a broken organization." But it goes downhill from there.

"I just don't know why you wouldn't benefit from new blood. I just think you'd get new concepts, new ideas," Whitmire said.

The state report saves its harshest critique for the commissioners, recommending more transparency, ethics reform, financial disclosure and 12-year term limits. It sure seems like people fight real hard to keep these non-paying appointments. But this is Harris County, not known for cleaning up its own house. This summer, commissioners reappointed Jim Fontento, already on the port commission 14 years.

"I think it sends the absolute wrong message, that the majority of commissioners is not looking for changes, is not looking for the port to do better, to be more honest and transparent," Commissioner Jack Morman said.

Commissioner Steve Phelps is still on the commission even though his term ended in September 2009. And the Chairman Jim Edmonds, his term expired in June. He survived ethics trouble even after we found out he was a paid consultant for a port contractor, even let them pay for a Saharan vacation.

You remember his answer...

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

"Not really, no," he said.

"Why not?"

"They were going to go anyway."

Edmonds avoided criminal trouble last year, in part because back then the port didn't even have an audio recording of their votes.

That's now changed and the port promises more. We'll see.

You can see the whole detailed report on our website -- all 87 pages, the blow by blow. [Read it here: Part 1 | Part 2]

The port wouldn't sit down and talk to us Friday on camera about how transparent they are going to be from now on but they issued a statement.

The Port of Houston released a statement Friday. It's below.

    Earlier today, the Port of Houston Authority received the Texas Sunset Commission's staff review and recommendations regarding the Port Authority. The opening line in the report's first paragraph reads "The Port of Houston Authority is not a broken organization, despite the image that may appear through the harsh glare of the media spotlight or a cursory reading of this report's findings."

    This document is available on the Sunset Commission website, www.sunset.state.tx.us, and the Port Authority has also posted the document to its website, www.portofhouston.com.

    The Port Commission and staff are reviewing the report and the Port Authority has until August 17 to provide a formal response to the Sunset Advisory Commission. Any member of the public can also provide feedback on the Sunset staff's recommendations through the Sunset Commission website.

    "This report has validated the significance of our port, which has contributed to the economic growth of the region for almost a century," said Executive Director Len Waterworth. "But as a 100-year-old government agency, we can always get better... and we will."

    The Port Authority anticipates considering and acting on these recommendations, to help improve its effectiveness, efficiency, transparency, and accountability. The Port Authority also commends the Sunset staff for the integrity, knowledge, thoroughness, and enthusiasm it demonstrated throughout the process. The Sunset Commission will hold a public hearing in Austin on September 5. The Port Authority, as well as the public, will have the opportunity to provide testimony and additional information at that time.

    The Port Commission and Port Authority staff will continue to work diligently in the upcoming weeks in its review of recommendations from the report.

    The review provided the opportunity for a comprehensive look at the Port Authority's policies, procedures, and practices. Port Commissioners and Port Authority staff worked openly and cooperatively with the Sunset Commission staff in its top-to-bottom review of the organization that began in 2011.

    The Port Authority's most recent impact study showed that more than one million Texas jobs are port-related, and that the Port of Houston overall generates $178.5 billion in total state economic activity and $4.5 billion in state and local taxes.


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