in Houston, Texas

Libyan trip part of city review; taxpayers shouldn’t pay airport nonprofit's travel bills

files/2009/06/passport.jpg
Friday, Jun 26, 2009, 09:56AM CST
By Lee Ann O'Neal
The foreign governments that are building airports in consultation with Houston Airport System officials should pick up the tab for officials’ travel expenses, a spokesman for Mayor Bill White said.

The city should not be on the hook for those bills, spokesman Patrick Trahan said Thursday, and any city officials' travel to those foreign airport sites should be paid for by the nonprofit that coordinated the consulting and collected fees from them.

“That's the principle, but I say that with a caveat: That's part of what we're reviewing,” Trahan said. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be done.”

In a story published on Thursday on www.texaswatchdog.org, Texas Watchdog found a trip to Libya that the nonprofit was heavily involved with -- but where Houston taxpayers footed the bill.

The mayor’s office announced a review last month of the Houston Airport System Development Corp. The development corporation was a nonprofit set up by former airport chief Richard Vacar to use airport employees’ expertise to build and run airports elsewhere. The announcement followed Vacar's abrupt departure.

Vacar

Trahan said the city would look into Vacar's trip to Libya in late February of this year as part of the review. Vacar expensed city taxpayers for $13,557, according to records reviewed by Texas Watchdog under the Texas Public Information Act. The final tab was OK’ed by White lieutenant and Houston chief administrative officer Anthony W. Hall Jr. on March 13, records show, with the trip aimed generally at "developing business opportunities" there.

Vacar says he made the trip only in his capacity as head of the airport and conducted no business for the nonprofit development corporation, which was also listed on the public records as part of the Tripoli mission. Records in Vacar's and other officials' calendars indicate the nonprofit, whose board he chaired, had business interests there, but Vacar said Thursday that he did no work for HASDC on the Libya trip and went there to try to eventually create Houston-to-Tripoli air routes.

From January 2008 to mid-May 2009, Vacar and a top airport deputy travelled at least 14 times to Ecuador and Costa Rica, where the airport system had ongoing, multimillion-dollar projects. Texas Watchdog reported Thursday on these and other details of the airport officials’ extensive travel.

Mayor not aware of all the ‘deals and details’

The city review is being led by Hall, the Houston Chronicle reported.

While the mayor was aware of proposed projects where city officials would lend their expertise, he would not have had “working knowledge” of the approved projects, Trahan said, or, for that matter, knowledge of the city officials’ travel particulars.

“The deals and details of who does what, who goes where and when, (the nonprofit) HASDC would handle,” Trahan said. “And this does not constitute … that the mayor would know who's travelling where.”

White

Trahan was referring to a January 2008 memo sent by Vacar to White. The memo listed about a dozen airport projects, in locations from Denton County, Texas, to the Carribean island of Antigua, in which city officials might be involved. (The memo is missing page 2, which Texas Watchdog hopes to receive and post shortly.)

“Any technical assistance we provide is reimbursed by those authorities on the other end, so we're not talking about being (paid) by taxpayer dollars,” Trahan said.

And it would not have been out of the ordinary for officials of the foreign governments to travel to Houston while working on their governments’ airport projects, he said.

The mayor's office expects Hall's review of the Houston Airport System Development Corp. to yield a report by the end of the summer, Trahan said by e-mail.

Texas Watchdog is continuing to sift through records to see whether taxpayers paid the tab for other travel that may have helped the nonprofit.

Vacar said Thursday he is no longer with the nonprofit group.

Editor's Note: Check back later today for more details from Texas Watchdog's interview with Vacar. And if you see something curious in the records posted or have questions related to the airport officials' work that should be looked into, please e-mail news@texaswatchdog.org, post to the comments below or call 713-980-9777.

Deputy Editor Jennifer Peebles contributed to this report. Contact Lee Ann O'Neal at 713-980-9777 or leeann@texaswatchdog.org.

Photo of a passport by flickr user swimparallel, used via a Creative Commons license.
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