Port Politics

Before Calhoun Port Authority board chairman Randy Boyd hired disgraced Congressman Blake Farenthold, the board made a strikingly similar move.

They created the position of director of engineering services and hired Boyd’s friend – a friend who once provided testimony that supported Boyd’s position in a breach of contract lawsuit.

Boyd’s opponents in the May 4 election said the way David Knuckey became the port’s first full-time engineer in 2013 sounded a lot like how Farenthold became the port’s first full-time lobbyist in 2018.

“I don’t think a person ought to have a job because of friendship or nepotism,” said one opponent, Alvin Bland.

Another opponent, Roger Hochgraber, said, “It all goes back to the same thing. It’s time to make a change.”

In 2006, Boyd’s business, RLB Contracting Inc., won a contract of nearly $7 million to dredge material for a terminal at Port Freeport, then known as the Brazos River Harbor Navigation District. In 2009, RLB sued Port Freeport, claiming it breached the contract by directing RLB to stop using pelletized lime and to stockpile it for almost a month.

RLB claimed it should have been compensated for that change as well as for the expense of dredging an additional 43,818 cubic yards of soil not listed in the contract but necessary to complete the project. The company stated in court documents that Port Freeport owed RLB more than $1.3 million.

In 2010, David Knuckey, then Port Freeport’s director of engineering, provided testimony. A licensed engineer in Texas reviewed Knuckey’s testimony for the Advocate and said it was improperly slanted in favor of RLB.

“I don’t see this as an ethical way to conduct business,” said the engineer, who asked to not be identified for fear of reprisal. “The Texas Board of Professional Engineers has a code of ethics, and this looks very suspicious as to whether it would meet this standard.”

In 2012, Port Freeport settled the case by paying RLB $875,000. Less than a year later, the board voted to hire Knuckey as the Calhoun Port Authority’s first director of engineering services. Previously, the port contracted for engineering services.

Knuckey referred questions for this story to Port Director Charles Hausmann. Neither Hausmann nor Boyd returned calls seeking comment.

Lawsuit details

In the 2009 lawsuit, Knuckey testified that he directed RLB to stop using lime after a neighbor of Port Freeport complained several times of lime dust.

But under questioning from David Roberts, a Port Lavaca attorney whose firm represents both RLB and the Calhoun Port Authority, Knuckey first said that Port Freeport had been wrong to tell RLB to stop using lime on the grounds that it created a hazardous environmental condition. Knuckey said that was because lime wasn’t listed in the contract as one of the substances that created hazardous environmental conditions.

“Based on this definition here,” Knuckey said while reviewing the contract, “we probably should not have called it a hazardous environmental condition. We probably should have structured it as a health hazard.”

“Well, I’m looking through here for health hazard, but I don’t see a definition for health hazard,” Roberts responded.

“Then we probably did not have the right to shut him down,” Knuckey said of Boyd.

Knuckey also testified he never contacted Boyd directly about the lime dust, even though he said he had been friends with RLB’s owner for about 27 years.

“How many jobs have you, say, you’ve worked together with him on?” Roberts asked Knuckey.

“We’ve probably worked together on at least half a dozen other projects,” Knuckey said, adding that those projects “had some minor issues” but “went fairly well.”

Meeting similarities

In August 2013, the board hired Knuckey in much the same way it did Farenthold. The board posted an agenda to the meeting at which Knuckey was hired without naming him or the position that would be created.

Minutes from the meeting show the board met in closed session “for the purposes of deliberating the appointment, employment, compensation, evaluation, reassignment, duties, discipline or dismissal of a public officer or employee.” After the board came out of closed session, A. Shields “Tony” Holladay Sr. made “a motion to employ an engineer as was discussed,” which H.C. “Tony” Wehmeyer Jr. seconded. The motion carried unanimously.

Holladay said in a phone interview with the Victoria Advocate that he did not know about the 2009 lawsuit between RLB and Port Freeport and Knuckey’s involvement in it. Even if he had known, he said, it wouldn’t have changed his decision.

“That would have been between him and Mr. Boyd on a personal basis and not port duties,” Holladay said.

Holladay said board members encouraged Hausmann to hire Knuckey after the executive director gave them information about him. He said the board viewed this as a way to cut costs because using local engineers as contractors had become expensive.

“The board knew about other candidates and who they were, and we had to agree with Mr. Hausmann that David Knuckey was the best choice for us,” Holladay said while praising Knuckey’s performance.

But the meeting minutes do not reflect that other candidates were considered.

“I was never considered for that position, and I’ve spent 30 years in the inland barge and marine transportation industry,” said Raymond Butler, a licensed professional engineer and Port Lavaca resident.

Butler was recently hired to give the Port of Victoria advice on how to improve and search for a new executive director.

Knuckey’s starting annual salary was $130,000, about $3,000 more than his salary at Port Freeport, where he had worked since 1982. Records show that as of September, his annual salary at the Calhoun Port Authority was $144,414.40.

Political turmoil

Boyd has faced criticism after the Advocate first reported that he directed staff to hire Farenthold in May 2018. He also has faced criticism for subsequent reporting by the Advocate about how Farenthold tried to steer federal contracts to RLB.

Boyd has placed a series of political advertisements in the weekly Port Lavaca Wave to answer this criticism and invoked Knuckey’s name in one.

The ad placed March 20 has caused at least one former port employee, who worked with Boyd for about a decade, to question Boyd’s motives for staying on the board.

In a March 20 ad, Boyd wrote that Knuckey told him in 2007, when he still worked for Port Freeport, that the Calhoun Port Authority “had gotten the short end of the stick” when it negotiated a lease with Calhoun LNG. Boyd wrote that Knuckey encouraged him to request a copy of a lease Port Freeport had arranged with another liquefied natural gas company that was worth $68.5 million more. Boyd wrote that this discovery led him to call a board meeting at which the port director, Robert Van Borssum, was terminated.

The lease with Calhoun LNG was then renegotiated, but the project never came to be. It would have involved importing liquid natural gas into Calhoun County, processing it and shipping it by pipeline throughout the U.S.

Van Borssum said in a recent interview with the Advocate that it wasn’t fair to compare the two leases because Calhoun LNG would have had to deepen the Matagorda Ship Channel to make the project work. Freeport already had a deep enough channel.

“Freeport has 45 feet of water. Point Comfort doesn’t. Freeport has a lot of amenities and characteristics that Point Comfort doesn’t. It’s ridiculous and comparing an apple to an orange,” Van Borssum said.

Van Borssum said Boyd used this lease as a way to successfully rally the other board members to terminate him because he wasn’t bending enough as a director to the board chairman’s will.

“The whole deal was that Mr. Boyd wasn’t satisfied with being a board member,” Van Borssum said. “Mr. Boyd wants to run it all.”

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Jessica Priest reports on the environment and Calhoun County for the Victoria Advocate. She may be reached at jpriest@vicad.com or 361-580-6521.

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Former Environment/Investigations Reporter

Jessica Priest worked for the Victoria Advocate from August 2012-September 2019, first as the courts reporter and then as the environment/investigations reporter. Read her work now at www.jessicapriest.me.

(3) comments

Glenn Wilson

VA - "...as it is one of the most important public assets to our region's economic health" - and apparently one of the most corrupt. These guys are just the type that Bobby Kennedy would have been all over like a cheap suit. Where does the State of Texas stand on the port authority's nefarious activities?

Dale Zuck

Is this article investigative journalism? If so, nice work. Or, sour grapes at beig stuck with court costs and lawyer fees?

AdvocateEditorialBoard Staff
Victoria Advocate Editorial Board

This investigation took weeks and months to complete. We started on it long before we knew when or how the appeals court might rule. Thank you for reading. We will continue to report on issues related to the Calhoun port, as it is one of the most important public assets to our region's economic health.

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