in Houston, Texas

Airport system's nonprofit refuses to turn over records to Houston Mayor Bill White

Friday, Jul 17, 2009, 01:41PM CST
By Steve Miller
nosignbysmlpdotcodotukThe nonprofit agency that coordinates the Houston Airport System's work overseas has a brief message for Mayor Bill White: Hit the road, Jack.

The group, called HAS Development Corp., is refusing to turn over its financial and other records to the mayor's office, which is trying to conduct an internal review of the airport's foreign work.

That makes at least three entities trying -- and failing -- to get records from the nonprofit. City Controller Annise Parker's office has also been rebuffed in its attempts to get the nonprofit's financials, and the nonprofit has turned down Texas Watchdog's similar requests for records under the Texas Public Information Act. City Councilman M.J. Khan also requested records from the group and was apparently ignored.

"The HASDC wrote to the Attorney General’s office … It feels that it doesn’t have to provide these records," said Patrick Trahan, the mayor’s press secretary. "We are waiting to hear.”

The refusal of the nonprofit -- which was created with City Council approval and using city resources -- to heed even the request of the mayor's office for information "is a dangerous game to play," said Christian Fuller, a former attorney with the state of Michigan, now a private practice lawyer in Detroit. "These political authorities have the potential to make your life very complicated."

Public scrutiny of the nonprofit increased shortly after White in May forced out longtime airport system chief Richard Vacar, the architect of an elaborate setup in which airport workers have spent thousands of hours of work in the past few years building and running airports in other countries, including in Ecuador and Costa Rica, and consulting on airport projects around the globe. Vacar said the program would eventually make money for the city-run airport system.

Trahan said the mayor's office will continue to press the nonprofit. While the city doesn't hold all of the nonprofit's expertise, he said, “HASDC maintains both intellectual capital held by the city of Houston with other assets and resources that (the nonprofit) is developing. Who they are, what they are, I don’t know. I do plan to see them in the review.”

Parker's office began seeking the nonprofit's records several weeks ago after the city's external auditors concluded that the flow of money between the city and the nonprofit -- most of it, apparently, as reimbursement for city workers' time -- was substantial enough that the nonprofit should be considered a "component unit" of the city government and brought into its auditing fold.

Texas Watchdog asked for access to several records from HAS Development Corp. recently, including its budget and contracts with some of its spinoff entities. HASDC has refused that request, and instead has given the state attorney general's office a number of reasons why it believes it is not subject to the state open records law.

The nonprofit says it is not a government agency and isn't covered by the law. It also says it has entered into contracts and agreements with a series of private businesses, including a construction deal at the new airport in Quito, Ecuador, that have confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements attached.

“The concession contract for the Quito airport project is the fundamental contract upon which the entire Quito airport project rests,” the nonprofit's letter said.

HASDC also asserts that the deals it is working on in Ecuador “are subject to constant review and scrutiny by various Ecuadorian regulatory bodies...” and that while the public does have a right to information concerning governmental bodies and officials, HASDC’s business “falls well outside the ‘affairs of government.'"

The letter was authored by Hank Coleman of the Vinson & Elkins law firm, who is the attorney for the nonprofit. Coleman hung up on a Texas Watchdog reporter seeking further comment on the HASDC’s contention of immunity from open records requests.

Contact Steve Miller at stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

"No" sign picture from flickr user smlp.co.uk, used via the Creative Commons license.

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