in Houston, Texas

Houston Mayor Bill White informed months ago of foreign airport projects; see ousted airport CEO's five-figure expense reports

Thursday, Jun 25, 2009, 01:07PM CST
By Jennifer Peebles

emirateslandingatiahbyalex-sHouston Mayor Bill White was informed nearly a year and a half ago that a nonprofit arm of the Houston Airport System was heavily involved in building and running airport facilities in several other countries, public records show.

The mayor, who last month helped spur the sudden retirement of longtime airport system chief Richard M. Vacar, was told in mid-January 2008 that the airport system and its top officials were involved in airport projects in Dublin, Ireland, and Mumbai and New Delhi, India, along with a proposal to build a new airport in Denton County, Texas, and to take over Chicago's Midway Airport if it were privatized.

Also on that list were the Houston Airport System's possible involvement in privatizing six airports in Colombia, and developing a new facility at V.C. Bird International Airport in Antigua, an airport named for the father of the man who "knighted" Houston financier Allen Stanford.

White signed off on that project list but added a handwritten amendment to it, requiring that Houston airport officials charge a "substantial premium" for the services they were offering to the outside airports, and that they provide the city with quarterly profit-and-loss statements for the nonprofit. Click here to see part of the list signed off on by White.

The mayor has said that he had increasing concerns in the weeks leading up to Vacar's departure about the extent to which Houston Airport System employees worked for the nonprofit.

The work by Vacar and other Houston airport officials in support of their overseas operations continued to grow after the mayor signed that letter. While documents show that Houston officials later backed away from the Midway airport deal, and didn't win out on the Colombia projects, other records show that Vacar and other Houston airport officials worked in 2008 and early 2009 to do business in Nicaragua, Libya, China, El Salvador and Macedonia.

airportmeldThe documents, including Vacar's calendar, his travel expenses and some of his correspondence, were made public Wednesday by the Houston Airport System in response to a Texas Public Information Act request by Texas Watchdog.

(Photos at left: Houston Mayor Bill White; former Houston Airport System Director Richard Vacar; protesters unfurl a banner over a billboard in Managua, Nicaragua, of President Daniel Ortega, with whom Vacar met last fall regarding the possible construction of a cargo airport there.)

A recorded phone message left at a line listed for Richard Vacar in Cleveland -- the only listing in Texas an online search could turn up -- did not yield a return call.

The airport system is an arm of the city government and oversees Bush Intercontinental Airport, Hobby Airport and the smaller Ellington Airport. It has declined to release some other records Texas Watchdog requested, including a list of airport system employees on the payroll in 2008 and how much they were paid. The city argues that release of the workers' identities could make the airport vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Texas Watchdog is contesting the closing of those records to Texas' attorney general.

At the center of the questions about offshore deals and airports in exotic locations is a nonprofit corporation called HASDC -- that's the Houston Airport System Development Corp., of which Vacar was chairman of the board and Airport System Chief Operating Officer Thomas Bartlett is an officer. It was unclear Thursday whether they retained their status with the nonprofit despite Vacar's departure.

Continued on page 2: Mayor: Trips 'don't seem ... out of line'

Photos: An Emirates Airline jet lands at Bush Intercontinental Airport -- photo by flickr user alex-s; photo of Ortega billboard by flickr user jorgemejia; both used via the Creative Commons license.

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