Houston controller Ron Green, the city’s top elected financial watchdog, has flown first class and frequented high-end hotels in New York and Chicago at taxpayer expense for more than two dozen publicly funded excursions, booking lodgings that cost as much as $460 per night and often exceeding maximum rates set by city policy, records obtained by the Houston Chronicle show.
In all, Green has billed for more than $35,000 in expenses for out-of-town trips in his first three years as the city’s elected financial watchdog – taking far more city-funded jaunts than Houston’s better-known mayor.
When asked about the trips, Green’s spokesman Roger Widmeyer said Green did nothing wrong, saying the Chronicle’s questioning of expenses bordered on “insulting.” Widmeyer said Green’s hands-on participation in travel and meetings involving bond deals pays off in savings and costs little.
“As a department director, elected official and CFO, Ronald Green has elected not to be a ceremonial controller. As a result, this office has been the most productive in decades,” said Widmeyer, who emphasized Green’s role in overseeing the city’s $14 billion debt portfolio and its $2.5 billion in investments.
Green minimizes expenses by staying at hotels booked by city financial consultants who sometimes passed on their corporate discounted room rates and organized working lunches and dinners for the controller and other staff, Widmeyer said.
“Most importantly the municipal bond refinancing that has taken place during Controller Green’s tenure in this office amounts to more than $200 million saved over the last nine years without extending the term of the debt. That has been the objective of bond travels,” Widmeyer said.
On frequent bond-related trips to Manhattan and Chicago, Green has been accompanied by an entourage of up to six other employees from various departments. Records show other city staff stayed in the same expensive hotels and sometimes took flights that cost more than $1,000.
In contrast, Harris County officials banned bond pricing trips for employees as unnecessary in 2010. They use teleconferencing technology to monitor the process without leaving Houston.
“We live in a world where you don’t need to go up there,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett. “There’s no benefit to the county, and if you’re using tax dollars to do it, it’s a waste.”
Beyond the controller’s expenses, his staff filed another $28,000 in travel bills for a dozen bond-related trips since 2010. Sometimes, they filled out waivers to justify hotel bills that exceeded spending limits in the city’s travel policy, records show. However, some waivers were incomplete or missing from files provided to the Chronicle.
Furthermore, controller staffers said they could not guarantee that the more than 1,200 pages of travel records provided to the newspaper were complete since the office relies on an outdated paper process for filing and reviewing travel expenses instead of tracking them electronically.
Houston’s three previous elected controllers, including Mayor Annise Parker, controller from 2003 to 2009, rarely traveled for bond business.
Through a spokesman, Parker confirmed she did not go along on any bond-pricing trips at all in her last two years as city controller because she had “staff with bond expertise and believed they could handle it.” Even as mayor, Parker has traveled less often than Green – taking 17 trips at city expense from 2010-2012, compared with 27 for Green.
I know Ronald Green well enough to know that he’s a smart, accomplished person who has ambitions to run for Mayor. I’m at a loss to understand why such a smart, ambitious person would have such a blind spot about something like this. If you truly believe that taking these trips is returning value to the taxpayers, then it’s on you to proactively make that case, and to do so before the newsies start sniffing around your expense account. Especially after there’s already been a negative story about you that might lead people to question your judgment. I still don’t have any concerns about Green being challenged for Controller by the likes of Don Sumners, but Green ought to be concerned about being challenged by someone of a higher caliber than that. He’s certainly going to face better opponents in 2015, if he does indeed run for Mayor. I’d try to address those concerns sooner rather than later if I were him.