The Calhoun Port Authority board, already facing a lawsuit for allegedly hiring disgraced Texas congressman Blake Farenthold in secret, is now refusing to discuss its one-of-a-kind retirement plan.
Board Chairman Randy Boyd told a reporter for the Victoria Advocate Wednesday he would answer no questions about the retirement plan because the paper is suing the board for failing to answer questions about the hiring of Farenthold as a lobbyist for $160,000 a year.
Calhoun Port Authority is a liaison for economic development between Calhoun County and the international cargo businesses that use the port. The board members, who meet monthly and more, if necessary, oversee port policy, but have no role in the day-to-day operation of the port.
The paper was following up on a lengthy story Sunday pieced together without the cooperation of Boyd and the rest of the board.
An earlier board created the retirement plan for itself — the only arrangement of its kind in Texas — in 1991, but has never disclosed the size of the fund created at the same time to fund the board pensions, or who has taken advantage of it or how much of it has been paid out, according to the story.
The Advocate calculated that over the past decade, the board has paid its members at least $630,000 for attending board meetings, at $400 a member per meeting. The board has also reimbursed itself for nearly $300,000 in travel expenses during that time, according to records the paper obtained through the Texas Public Information Act.
Board member Tony Holladay billed the Port Authority for $80,465 and Boyd $68,915, the two largest travel expense bills during that time, the paper reported. The receipts revealed lavish and expensive meals, according to the story.
The story says the Port Authority, based in Point Comfort on Lavaca Bay, about 130 miles southwest of Galveston, pays $125 a month into a retirement account for each of the six board members, who are elected by the public to four-year terms. Board members have the option of contributing all or part of their meeting stipend to their retirement accounts.
The Port Authority, however, has refused to make public an accounting of those plans, in spite of the taxpayer funding for the stipends and the monthly retirement contributions.
Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, an Austin-based government watchdog, told the Advocate, “It sounds like the board is in the position to feather its own nest with little to no accountability.”
The Advocate first clashed with the Port Authority when the paper filed suit, objecting to the lack of notice given to the public before the board hired Farenthold on May 9.
“No one has ever explained in any meaningful way to the public how it’s in the best interest … to hire this man for this job at $160,000 a year,” Advocate attorney John Griffin said in a Texas Monitor story at the time.
Farenthold had left his congressional seat a month earlier when the public learned that taxpayers underwrote an $84,000 settlement of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him by his former communications director in 2014.
Bill Cobb, the Austin attorney representing the Port Authority, denied all the claims in the lawsuit. The board relieved itself of its transparency responsibilities, Cobb said, because it gave authority to hire Farenthold to Port Authority Director Charles Hausmann, according to the Advocate story at the time.
In August the Advocate reported that Farenthold in 2015 tried to broker a meeting between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Boyd about a federal contract for Boyd’s company, RLB Contracting Inc., to do dredging in the Houston Ship Channel.
According to documents the paper obtained through the federal Freedom of Information Act, Army Corps officials turned down the meeting due to ethical concerns..
Less than a month after Farenthold was hired, the board took a vote on whether or not to retain him and deadlocked 3-3.
Last week, the 13th Court of Appeals in Corpus Christi granted an extension to Nov. 14 for the Port Authority to file its brief in the suit brought by the Advocate..
The lawsuit may not be heard before the end of this year. In the meantime, Farenthold will continue to collect more than $13,000 a month from the Port Authority.
“The newspaper and the public believe this matter should be resolved quickly, given the taxpayer funds [that] are being expended, and the port seems to be engaging in delay tactic after delay tactic,” Advocate attorney John Griffin said.
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].