Port directors taking private luxury cruises?
HOUSTON Welcome aboard the SS Sam Houston -- an intimate view of all those big ships docked at the Port of Houston. "An afternoon on the water, you can't have it any better," port tourist Cletus Waldmiller said. It's where we met Cletus Waldmiller. He hadn't seen the Houston Ship Channel since the war -- that's World War II. "I can't hardly remember back then," he said. But like others on board, he marvels at the engineering that created the Houston Ship Channel nearly 100 years ago. "It's just beautiful," port tourist Mary Woodward said. "Nice ride, but I'm hungry," we said. But there's no food on this trip. We did a get a cup of coffee and a can of Coke. But after all, it's a free trip. The port spends $1.1 million a year operating the Sam Houston, but some of the money pays for those special private cruises we've heard about. "On a number of special tours, yes, there's alcohol provided on the MV Sam Houston. That's been a long-standing practice," Port of Houston President Alec Dreyer said. When we asked to see the records of who got the special trips, someone at the Port of Houston changed one of the records. "Who changed it?" we asked Dreyer. "I have no idea who changed it," he said. This cruise, it says, requested by the commissioners of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. It sounds like an important government trip, doesn't it? Except it wasn't. "You and I both know the FERC commissioners did not request that trip," we told Dreyer. "And I'll readily agree with you," he replied. This is what the document said before the Port gave it to us -- tour requested by Alec Dreyer, the port president. Emails about it, even call it "Alec's trip." "I was absolutely not involved in ordering any change to any schedule with respect to any special cruises on the MV Sam Houston," Dreyer said. Dreyer is paid $359,000 a year to run Houston's port. But he wouldn't talk about another big source of his income -- the quarter of a million dollars he makes as a director of a private company called Converge. That's why it mattered to us who set up that special boat trip with the Port's money. "I think it's kind of irrelevant whether she or I did. The trip happened," Dreyer said. The she was the other host, Nora Brownell, another director of Converge. It was, after all, the Friends of Nora Party. The Port provided buses, port police escorts and of course Catering by George. On the guest list was Dreyer and his wife and the Port chairman and his wife. But isn't there a Port policy limiting the catering to just $15 a person? "You blew right past that," we told Dreyer. "Yeah, I'm not aware that there is one," Dreyer said. Of course, with filet on the menu, you can forget that. The catering bill was more than $2,000 for a three-hour cruise. "Nora brought to us a number of contacts, a number of people, that we weren't exposed to in energy marketplace," Dreyer said. Like CenterPoint? "Can you name one single contract or penny that the Port has received?" we asked Dreyer. "Related to that trip? No, I can't specifically identify that," he replied. The trip happened in April. Six whole months later, the Port got around to asking Brownell if she was able to reimburse half the catering bill. Days after our request for records, Brownell reimbursed the entire catering bill; interesting timing, because Alec Dreyer was now investigating another controversial trip on the Sam Houston. "I found out about it after the fact," Dreyer said. A trip to inform the Pearland Panthers of the importance of the Houston Ship Channel. They're a youth basketball team. You know who set it up? The port's PR director at the time, Argentina James. Did we mention her kids are on that team? "No comment," James said. "Everything I did while I was working at the Port Authority was always a part of Port policy and practiced with what the Port did in terms of its involvement with the community." And that's why we were looking for food when we were on the Sam Houston. So where are the fajitas? The fajitas was part of the $1,280 catering bill for the basketball team's trip. "If you think it's a good idea, then here's your chance to invite all the kids of the Houston area on that boat and we will cater every single one of them to give them the same opportunity," we told Dreyer. "We won't be catering for all of the students in this area. We just don't do that," Dreyer replied. Last November, James resigned just weeks after the boat deal surfaced. She got a plum severance consulting deal worth $380,000. It raised lots of eyebrows. And next week, we'll be back with more details of the place that gets tens of millions of your tax dollars -- the Port of Plenty.