Friday, October 31, 2008

Politicians and other government leaders are enjoying games of horseshoes, skeet shooting, hot tub lounging and world class fishing at a top-secret power company resort that was uncovered in a Local 2 Investigates report on Thursday. "This facility is their Taj Mahal for creating relationships with people who exercise regulatory power over their business," said Andrew Wheat of the Austin lobbying watchdog group, Texans for Public Justice.Read the article at KPRC 2 Local Houston

Power Company Used Secret Resort For Politicians

By Stephen Dean

MONT BELVIEU, Texas -- Politicians and other government leaders are enjoying games of horseshoes, skeet shooting, hot tub lounging and world class fishing at a top-secret power company resort that was uncovered in a Local 2 Investigates report on Thursday.

"This facility is their Taj Mahal for creating relationships with people who exercise regulatory power over their business," said Andrew Wheat of the Austin lobbying watchdog group, Texans for Public Justice.

Known as "The Pond" off Trinity Bay in Chambers County, the resort includes a cabin with sleeping quarters and many other amenities near the desirable fishing spot. Cooling water flows from a nearby power plant and dumps into Trinity Bay, making for unparalleled fishing in this exclusive location just five miles south of Mont Belvieu.

CenterPoint Energy is listed as part owner of the land, and lobbyist disclosure forms lay out a lengthy history of that utility hosting elected and appointed leaders for day-long or weekend and overnight excursions.

"CenterPoint is inviting these officials down to catch trophy fish," said Wheat. "In exchange, CenterPoint, I believe, is probably fishing for friendly votes."

Local 2 Investigates aimed hidden cameras at "The Pond" from Sky 2 helicopter and from a boat launched into Trinity Bay over the past two months. Guests were recorded as they were ferried on golf carts from the overnight lodge, and then escorted to a private spot to cast their lines off a cement causeway.

Past guests told Local 2 Investigates the staff routinely baited the hooks for guests, helped to reel in any fish, and then cleaned the fish to send home in vacuum packs after guests are fed a catered lunch.

While other fishermen congregate in boats just off the causeway and off of CenterPoint's property, the entire shore is marked with numerous "No Trespassing" signs. The single driveway entrance on land has no signage, aside from additional trespassing warnings.

Local police officers are paid by the power company to guard "The Pond" at all hours of the day, all year long. An air-conditioned guard shack with a TV antenna is located near the shore for those officers.

Most neighbors who live near the facility told Local 2 Investigates they had no idea that a fishing lodge was located beyond the gates.

Wheat said, "When these things do exist, they are closely guarded secrets."

Many state legislators from the Houston area declined to return phone calls about how often they have been guests at "The Pond."

The powerful chairman of the Texas House Committee on Regulated Industries, which has oversight over power companies, was one of those remaining silent. State Rep. Phil King, of Weatherford, did not respond to numerous calls for comment.

Lobbyist disclosure forms on file with the Houston city secretary reveal that CenterPoint Energy has been spending thousands of dollars each year on all sorts of lobbying that benefited various officials, including trips to "The Pond."

The CenterPoint Energy forms list lunches being purchased for city council members at The Plaza Club in downtown Houston, suite tickets to Houston Astros baseball games including hundreds of dollars in food and drink, rodeo tickets, and other gifts.

In those forms, gifts to some elected officials refer to "The Pond" as "Cedar Bayou Fishing Trip" or "Cedar Bayou Conference Center."

While the facility does include a conference center, it is not booked for public events and therefore no price tag can be used to set its value as a gift to public officials.

In the forms filed by CenterPoint Energy, only the costs of catered meals are disclosed in most of the trips, with the gifts sometimes only adding up to $20 or $40 for each city official.

Houston City Council Member Adrian Garcia, who is also running for Harris County sheriff, is listed on most of the CenterPoint lobbyist forms since taking office. He described The Pond as, "a nice place to get away.

"It's a place I've used for retreats for my staff," said Garcia.

Asked about the appearance of ethical conflict, he said, "Never has CenterPoint said we want to invite you out here as a condition of support. Never."

Councilman James Rodriguez also said he used the facility for a staff retreat. He described it as, "nothing lavish." He said his staff was served an egg breakfast in what he called a "nice cabin." He said his staff enjoyed the pool table that is located in the facility.

Councilwoman Sue Lovell also said her invitation to "The Pond" was used for a staff retreat.

Houston councilman Jarvis Johnson is listed as receiving more than $700 in gifts from CenterPoint since October 2006. His name appeared on the city lobbying disclosure forms in the same fashion as other members of council who have been guests at "The Pond." Johnson did not respond to numerous requests for comment from Local 2 Investigates.

The head of an electric industry watchdog group known as Texas Ratepayers' Organization to Save Energy is familiar with The Pond from her days on the Texas Public Utility Commission staff.

The group's Carol Biedrzycki said, "I was under the impression that if there was some elected official, or some political appointee that disagreed with (the power company), they would automatically be invited to The Pond. Disagree with (the power company), you'll be invited to go fishing and learn a lot about the issues."

Biedrzycki said utilities typically have well-funded lobbies since they are so heavily regulated, but she said, "There's a perceived conflict of interest."

Biedrzycki said, "The average person will probably be infuriated whenever they hear about this. And when they get their electric bill, they're going to think about the fact that they're paying for all of this lavish entertainment, and they are, even though the company says they're shareholder funds."

While CenterPoint Energy has clearly invited anyone it chooses, it refused to allow Local 2 Investigates to visit the resort. The utility also refused to answer questions about the resort on camera.

In an e-mail response, CenterPoint spokeswoman Leticia Lowe wrote that expenses for The Pond, "are paid by shareholders only and not ratepayers."

While specific dates and names are listed on the city lobbying forms filed by CenterPoint, the utility claimed it keeps no record of guests when Local 2 Investigates requested a copy of any past guest lists.

Lowe wrote, "CenterPoint Energy has not used the facility since a week before Hurricane Ike." She declined to explain who was seen fishing and being driven around the facility earlier this month as Local 2 Investigates hovered above in Sky 2 helicopter. One man was recorded covering his face when he spotted the helicopter. He then ran inside and behind closed doors in the lodge.

Reliant Energy, which is also part owner of the facility, also disavowed any knowledge of the guests caught on camera.

Most elected officials said they were hosted at the facility by CenterPoint lobbyist Mark Kollmorgen, whom CenterPoint declined to make available for an interview. His name is on the filings with the City Secretary, and he is also the man who fields calls from elected leaders about power company issues.

Houston elected officials told Local 2 Investigates that Kollmorgen is the man they call when constituents complain about neighborhood street lights being out, and he was also the man they contacted with complaints during the massive power outages caused by Hurricane Ike.

During some visits, guests said he has handed out custom ball-caps that include the image of a large jumping fish with its mouth open, and colorful lettering that proclaims, "The Pond" on the front of the ball-cap.

Biedrzycki said, "It strikes me as being out of balance, that there's too much money that's being spent on lobbying and influencing legislators and government appointees and not enough attention being paid to making sure that the cost of operating the system and maintaining the system stay reasonable for the average person."

Local 2 Investigates also found The Pond to be a favorite of Harris County commissioners.

Commissioner Steve Radack said he has been a guest at the facility several times over the past years. He said he arrived each time in the morning and then left after lunch. Asked about any appearance of ethical conflicts, Radack said, "I don't see a problem with going fishing with someone."

Commissioner Sylvia Garcia also admitted to several visits and overnight stays. Garcia said she was, "Basically told I have a standing invitation.

"The setting is lovely. It is a good place to have a retreat. It's away from everything. It's a cabin. It's very nice," she said.

Asked why she would accept such a lavish gift, she said, "I guess I'm not sure I buy into your question."

She admitted she has no idea what value may be placed on such a guided fishing lodge visit on the open market.

Local 2 Investigates found other saltwater fishing lodges charging up to $1,800 for fishing excursions with a guide, including meals and an overnight stay.

Garcia said, "I would suspect there might be some people that it's receiving a special privilege and, in fact, it probably is."

However, she said regardless of the appearance, it is legal. "If you're going to receive a meal and your host is there, it is lawful under state law," she said.

Commissioners Jerry Eversole and El Franco Lee did not respond to questions about whether they have been guests at The Pond.

Texans for Public Justice member Andrew Wheat said, "Some of the dollar values you're describing, sounds like the lobbyists for CenterPoint and the public officials who are receiving this, are low-balling the real value of this and the most obvious reason why they would do that would be to dodge public scrutiny of the favors they're taking from CenterPoint."

On the Texas Public Utility Commission, two members said they have never been a guest at The Pond, while Commissioner Barry Smitherman wrote, "Sometime many years ago (mid to late 90's or so), when I was in the private sector in Houston, I went to that facility once."

He wrote that he was a guest of someone invited by CenterPoint and he added, "I haven't been back since."

Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt was also a guest at The Pond, according to disclosures filed with the city secretary.

He described himself as an avid fisherman, who took a "couple hours" off one day to go fishing. Hurtt said, "I showed up there, they took us down to the water and gave us an opportunity to fish. Had dinner and left."

The chief said he didn't do so well at fishing that day.

When asked what CenterPoint gets in return for hosting the police chief on an exclusive fishing trip, Hurtt replied, "The only thing they get from the police chief is I send them a check each month to pay my bill."

He added, "Like most people in business and citizens, they want to get to know about the chief personally, the type of fellow he is."

Asked if he would want to return to the facility, he answered that he would unless he had to grant another interview about it.

The area offshore from The Pond is known as the "Old HL&P Spillway," named after CenterPoint's predecessor company Houston Lighting and Power.

Lobbying watchdog Wheat said, "You gotta wonder how much of the public interest has flowed over that spillway."