By BILL MURPHY, RAD SALLEE and PAIGE HEWITT - Houston Chronicle - with contributions by Chronicle reporter Dale Lezon - June 6, 2007
The Harris County Auditor's Office said Tuesday it is investigating whether the county's Toll Road Authority relied on donations from firms that do business with it to pay for Christmas parties, golf tournaments and summer outings during the past five years.
The widening probe follows last week's forced retirement of Toll Road Authority Director Mike Strech amid revelations that county contractors had paid thousands of dollars to fund an employee party at SplashTown last year.
Public Infrastructure Director Art Storey said earlier this week that Strech told him he planned to solicit contributions for a similar party at SplashTown in July, in direct violation of Storey's order not to hold such events or ask vendors to donate.
Also Tuesday, county officials released several documents involved in their investigation, including a "sponsorship list" for an employee picnic held at SplashTown last June.
The list of 31 county contractors, many of them engineering firms, is broken down by the amount each donated or pledged. The amounts ranged from $250 to $5,000, with companies classified as copper-, bronze-, silver-, gold-, or platinum-level donors.
The total sponsorship was listed as $59,750. Of that, the authority spent $45,000 on the SplashTown outing, leaving $15,000 an off-the-books social account, district attorney's investigator Dan McAnulty said.
Several vendors contacted by the Houston Chronicle on Tuesday said they had no problem with the parties, to which they and their families were invited. They said they did not feel pressured to contribute and did not receive any improper benefits.
"If we didn't donate, that wouldn't affect our relationship with the authority," said V.N. Vijayvergiya, president of Geotest Engineering, Inc. "It's a request. It's not an obligation."
Robert Barnett of the engineering firm Sparks, Barlow & Barnett Inc. called the events "a community effort."
"We get jobs through the Commissioners Court, but we want the authority staff to know we appreciate them," he said.
Strech, who made $153,275 annually, said Tuesday he would not comment while under investigation by the district attorney's office.
District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal on Monday said his office had found no criminal wrongdoing in the solicitations.
Steve Garner, chief assistant county auditor, said officials have found two off-the-books bank accounts overseen by Strech that were used to pay for parties and celebrations for Toll Road Authority employees.
Garner said that in one instance, Strech took $1,800 from an "HCTRA Helping Hands" fund, set up for needy toll road workers, to rent Tin Hall in Cypress for a 2006 Christmas party.
Strech later paid back the fund with $1,800 taken from another account, where money solicited from toll road vendors was deposited, Garner said.
Peter Key, who was appointed deputy director of the authority by Storey 20 months ago, said Tuesday that Strech said he would seek the Commissioners Court's approval to use toll road funds for the party.
An Oct. 18, 2006, e-mail to Strech and Key from the authority employees' "Celebration Committee" says the party — with barbecue, a deejay and a gift for each employee — would cost about $30,000 based on a "pre-head count" of 900 attendees.
Key said he initially approved the expenditure at Strech's request, then withdrew his approval the next day.
"I decided it was just not appropriate to use public funds to hold a Christmas party," he said.
Key said Storey told Strech "not to have any more events or parties." But later, Storey said, he learned that the authority was planning to solicit donations from vendors for an employee picnic at SplashTown in July. A similar event had been held there in 2006.
In a letter delivered Thursday, Storey told Strech he would fire him if he didn't retire before the end of Friday. Strech retired, and his executive assistant, Diana Wilcox, resigned.
Garner said auditors also will look at whether Electronic Transaction Consultants, a Toll Road Authority vendor, paid for an authority golf tournament in February.
"We're not going to comment on this," ETC spokeswoman Carla Kienast said.
County Judge Ed Emmett said the public should not be concerned that vendors were winning county contracts based on their contributions.
Even if no crime was committed, Key said afterward, "it looks bad, it smells bad, and it calls into question the integrity of this agency and the people who work here."