13 Undercover exposed questionable spending at the Port and criminal investigations are underway. And now, there's evidence the Port considered retaliating against Channel 13 for our reporting.
Emails are proving critical to a DA's investigation and they shed new light on a secret the Port tried to keep from us for weeks.
The Houston Ship Channel is almost 100 years old so you figure the folks who run the place know how long the place is, how much cargo goes through it; simple questions for a highly paid public relations staff.
So why did they have to pay someone else to tell them?
"How silly is that to spend money that way?" we asked Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack.
"It's outrageous," he said. "There's no justification for it whatsoever."
That's right. For the last two months, the Port has hired a public relations firm to help them respond to a 13 Undercover investigation and the Port tried to keep that a secret.
"I think the Port has kept a lot of secrets," said Radack.
Pierpont Communications was hired to try to explain the Houston Port's fascination with helping Libya improve their ports. We had told you port Chairman Jim Edmonds became a paid consultant to the company spearheading the Libyan deal. We discovered the free Saharan vacation the chairman got from that company on his first trip to Libya.
"Do you consider that a gift?" we asked Edmonds.
"Not really, no," he said.
"They were going to go anyway," Edmonds replied.
That interview was scheduled in advance, but emails we've obtained show the Port was worried about what they called a future 13 Undercover ambush, so they paid Pierpont in part to help them stage on-camera rehearsals for our future interviews.
We showed you the $106 million empty cruise terminal. One of the PR firm's suggested messages -- "It takes courage to make tough decisions."
"It takes real vision, courage and conviction to make long term decisions not knowing when or if ever you'll have success you want out of that facility," said Port President Alec Dreyer,
And why spend more money when former Port PR Director Argentina James is already getting $15,000 a month for PR consulting? Part of a controversial severance deal, sure, but money already being spent.
2011 been a good year for Olga Rodriguez. Her pay from last year has gone up more than $50,000. Can you say that? She's now the director of public relations at the port of plenty, but wont interview with us.
You pay a Port communications director, too. Lisa Ashley; another $123,000. She won't interview, either.
"If you added all the lawyers they have, all the PR people, you couldn't put them all on one bus," said Radack.
Emails show the Port of Houston talked about retaliation against Channel 13 for our port of plenty investigation.
"I'm not aware of that," said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett. "Obviously, if that occurred, that's inappropriate."
In April, the Port helped sponsor Channel 13's Earth Day e-cycle drive.
"We're worried about clean air and clean water and recycling," said Edmonds during the event.
But emails show the Port talked about pulling its support for the Earth Day celebration. Their PR firm said it wasn't a good idea. The E-cycle drive would "generate some positive exposure." Cancelling it "might be viewed as a peculiar move by PHA employees."
"There's no way public money should be used for that," said Radack.
Are we seeing another page of that open book at the Port of Houston.
"This is an open book," said Edmonds. "Anybody wants to look at anything in this organization is most welcome to it."
We got a taste of that open book when the Port commission meeting ended.
"I have no comments," Edmonds told us.
"You talked about transparency. Here's your chance to be transparent," we said.
"I don't care to talk to you about anything," said Edmonds.
And now, the Port has expanded its open book theory. An email from the woman paid to talk to the media told us, "The Port Authority declines further comment due to pending investigations."
It's clear Commissioner Radack has had enough.
"I want answers. I think other people on commissioners court want answers. We are getting ready to get those answers one way or the other," he said.
Edmonds is no longer a consultant for the Port vendor, but has refused calls to say how much he made, and how long he was on the payroll. Below, you can see all kinds of documents that reveal how Port officials practiced what they wanted you to hear, trust me. It's entertaining
The Port of Houston released a statement Wednesday. It reads:
"In recent months, the Port of Houston Authority has been under close scrutiny by the media. The Port Authority will continue to provide journalists with complete and accurate reports of Port Authority activities.
The Port Authority Public Affairs Division has sought assistance by third party consultants, to support the Port Authority's efforts to educate and raise awareness about the goals, objectives, benefits, as well as protect the business reputation and image of the Port of Houston which helps generate $118 billion dollar economic impact to the state and delivers 785,000 jobs to this region."