SplashDown: Abrupt Resignations At HCTRA After Contractor “Sponsored” Picnic Is Discovered

Posted in Around The State, Privatization, Road Issues at 9:34 am by wcnews

Interesting story out of Houston where the Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA) had begun soliciting corporations that do business with them to “sponsor” an annual employee party at a local water park. Here’s the story, Toll road picnic footed by vendors:

Contractors doing business with the county paid thousands of dollars for a picnic for Harris County Toll Road Authority employees last year and were about to be asked to do so again, officials with the county and district attorney’s office said Monday.

Details, including plans to recognize vendors as gold- or platinum-level donors based on how much money they contributed to this year’s picnic, were confirmed Monday in response to questions about the abrupt retirement of Toll Road Authority Executive Director Mike Strech last Thursday.

Strech, who headed the agency for six years, and his executive assistant Diana Wilcox, quit after being confronted about the planned solicitation, Harris County Public Infrastructure Department Director Art Storey said.

The annual event was held last year at SplashTown in Spring and was scheduled there for mid-July until county officials canceled it. Storey described the party as a long-standing event typical of the authority’s “culture.”

I would recommend reading the comments too. The discussion is revolves around, what’s wrong with it if none of this is going into anyone’s pocket, and the counterpoint of, if nothing was wrong then why did those two people abruptly resign?

The biggest issue is probably this:

District attorney’s investigator Dan McAnulty said vendors were classified as bronze-, silver-, gold- and platinum-level contributors for gifts ranging from $500 to $5,000.

Similar letters signed by Strech were to be sent to several companies, each doing at least $100,000 in annual business with the county, McAnulty said.

He and Storey declined to name the companies, but Storey said most are engineering firms that are hired on the basis of credentials instead of the sealed bids used for construction contracts.

Storey emphasized that Strech neither had nor claimed any authority to award contracts, which are approved solely by vote of Commissioners Court.

McAnulty said donations were placed in a Bank of America account in the name of the Toll Road Authority Celebration Committee, which he described as a “social committee” set up last year.

Such an account is “clearly improper because it was off the county’s books” and would not be noticed in a county audit, Stafford said.

About $15,000 was in the account, apparently left over from last year’s party at SplashTown, for which $60,000 had been collected — and $45,000 spent — from 29 contributors, McAnulty said.

He said about 1,400 people attended that event, including HCTRA employees and guests of vendors, who received tickets based on their contributions.

The off the books account with money left over. That’s just asking for trouble. If there was any impropriety here it’s doubtful anyone will be held accountable. Toll authority officials, appointed by local elected officials who, more than likely are long gone. He’s already resigned, case closed.

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