Port of Houston commissioners pass new spending policy, then throw a party using your tax dollars

February 27, 2013 5:12:40 PM PST
In our investigation into Port of Houston spending, we're spotlighting public figures guarding public money who had no interest in talking with us. On Tuesday night, as the first part of our investigation was airing, we found them spending even more money.

On Tuesday, the commissioners passed a new policy on travel and entertainment expenses, claiming it will tighten the way they spend your money and avoid embarrassing spending in the future. However, you may question their commitment to change when you see them partying just hours later.

Welcome to the port commissioners monthly meeting. Commissioners are the public's representatives responsible for making sure your millions in tax dollars are well spent by the port administrators.

They don't want to talk to me, so I signed up to talk to them.

"Great to be here, In case we haven't met, I am a reporter for ABC13," Ted Oberg said. "We want to invite you to be a part of the broadcast tonight."

We asked about the state sunset report criticizing unusual spending. We asked about expensive dinners and donations and a big party with a separate bartender just for them.

"Why did the contract call for a separate bartender for the chairman and commissioners?" we asked.

They didn't like that. One commissioner was clearly in shock when we dared ask about perks you paid for.

Chairman Janiece Longoria: Just to clear the record, I was not the chairman at the time so there was no private bartender for me at the time.
Ted Oberg: No. Were you on the commission at the time?
Longoria: Yes.
Oberg: Yeah, it was a private bartender for the chairman and the commissioners.

There it is in the contract. Chairman Longoria defended the party as a way to bring in new customers and boost the local economy. Later said she knew nothing of it. Port bosses called it a separate bartender, not a private one. And that commissioner who was so shocked when we brought it up? He said he wasn't even there.

"I didn't go to that place," said commissioner Kase Lawal.

An excuse so nice, Lawal said it twice.

"I wasn't there," Lawal said.

And we believed him. No reason not to. Move on. But then we got the photos of the party. It was a nice party with good food -- $172,000 public dollars go a long way.

Looking through the party photos...Isn't that Commissioner Kase Lawal? Can't be; he said he wasn't there. Wait, there he is again. And there he is with the old chairman and the new chair and the Congresswoman and some friends. There with the Congresswoman alone. I suppose he didn't count on us finding the photos.

Other commissioners didn't want to talk. We never saw them. Jimmy Burke stayed away. Newly-appointed Port Commissioner John Kennedy said it's all behind them, things are getting better.

Commissioner John Kennedy: I think we will do the right thing.
Ted Oberg: Why?
Kennedy: Because I think you have a lot of people around that table who want to do the right thing.

And the commissioners Tuesday passed that new policy they say will better the control spending.

"We've tightened some things up," said Phyllis Saathoff, Port of Houston Authority Corporate Affairs.

But it's not what you say that matters, it's what you do. And just hours after the port's new spending policy was approved, they did this on Tuesday night -- the port turned around and threw a party.

They weren't happy we found out about it. Two bartenders, a little food and a lot of port employees there to thank a former board member for her service. No new jobs, no new contract, just more money for another fancy party.

When we crashed the party Tuesday night, the folks at the port said the party was being paid for with port funds. But then late Wednesday, we got word that "industry partners" will be reimbursing for the event. Who? No idea. When was the deal? Maybe today. Maybe a few weeks ago.

We can tell you the only signs at the party and on the invite were from your Port of Houston.