The Calhoun Port Authority Board’s has spent so far $360,000 to fight a lawsuit alleging it violated the Texas Open Meetings Act when it hired former U.S. Congressman Blake Farenthold as its lobbyist.
Port staff disclosed the amount during a public meeting Wednesday after board member Shields A. “Tony” Holladay Sr. asked for it while reviewing the port’s check register for the month.
The port had previously asked the Texas Attorney General’s Office if it could withhold the amount from the public under an exemption to the Texas Public Information Act related to pending litigation and attorney-client privilege. The Attorney General’s Office has yet to issue an opinion.
Board chairman Randy Boyd, who directed port staff to hire Farenthold on May 9, 2018, said the port would get that amount back when it prevails in the lawsuit, which was brought by the Victoria Advocate. The newspaper filed the suit after the port hired Farenthold without notifying the public in advance of its intention to do so.
Luis De La Garza, one of four people challenging Boyd in the May 4, 2019, election, asked the board to consider settling with the newspaper.
“I’m asking you guys, whenever you go into closed session, to consider, now that Mr. Farenthold is gone, just visiting with the Victoria Advocate’s lawyers to just ask them, ‘What would it take to stop the hemorrhaging of these funds?’” De La Garza said.
Farenthold resigned Jan. 4, and the port has yet to produce any written documentation of what work he performed for the taxpayer-supported special district.
The lawsuit is pending after the port appealed in August a decision by District Judge Bobby Bell that it should go to trial.
The board retained Austin attorney Bill Cobb to fight the open government lawsuit. According to his contract, the board had the choice of paying him $400 per hour, or a flat rate of $80,000, plus $40,000 if the case went to the court of appeals, as it has.
“This is just shocking that they have paid $360,000 on a case that has not even been tried yet. They are throwing the taxpayers’ money down a rat hole,” said John W. Griffin Jr., an attorney who represents the newspaper in the lawsuit.
De La Garza also asked the board to consider electing someone else as chairman of the board because the board’s own rules disqualify Boyd from serving multiple terms in a row in the leadership post as he has done.
When De La Garza tried to bring up another issue after making the request about the chairman, board member Dell Weathersby cut him off.
“That’s out of order,” Weathersby said, citing a 2009 resolution the board passed that said people must write down on a sign-in sheet what topics they wish to talk to the board about beforehand.
The port’s attorney, Sandra Witte, said the board could use its discretion to allow the public to speak. De La Garza also pointed out that no one present had been reminded of this resolution until Boyd had read it aloud at the meeting Wednesday, but he still wasn’t allowed to continue.
Boyd and Weathersby also defended the hiring of Farenthold on Wednesday when port director Charles Hausmann brought up that the port was still on the hook for 25 percent of the cost to repair defective jetties in the Matagorda Ship Channel.
Boyd has said Farenthold could help the port get out of that financial obligation.
That 25 percent comes to $22.7 million, Hausmann said, and the port might have to put up that money by the first quarter of next fiscal year.
“This is the money we were trying to save through our actions that we did that got us in a lawsuit,” Boyd said.
“That is correct,” Hausmann said.
Currently, T.W. LaQuay Marine is dredging the ship channel as part of a $7.46 million contract it has with the federal government to maintain the channel, port engineer David Knuckey said.
One of the options in its contract is to dredge the port’s berthing area for an additional cost of about $1.3 million, which would be borne by the port. Wednesday, Knuckey recommended the port go out for bids to see if it could get a better price on dredging the berthing area, where he estimated only 153,000 cubic yards of material needed to be dredged.
Boyd, who owns RLB Dredging Inc., said he would not bid on the project in accordance with the port’s conflict-of-interest policy and recused himself because he thought T.W. LaQuay would submit another bid. T.W. LaQuay is owned by his aunt and uncle.
“I will step out of this room so there’s no appearance of impropriety,” he said.
Records obtained by the Advocate show that the port has paid T.W. LaQuay about $1.5 million for dredging projects since 2001.
The records show that, in 2001, Boyd abstained from a motion to table awarding a dredging contract that had been bid on by King Fisher Marine, his grandfather’s company, and T.W. LaQuay. However, at the next meeting, Boyd seconded a motion for the port to award T.W. LaQuay that same contract. The records do not show Boyd abstaining from any other votes or discussions about T.W. LaQuay when it worked for the port in 2001, 2005, 2009 and 2010.