Wednesday, June 06, 2007

"It was not all about a picnic."

Ex-toll road chief defends party contributions

Going against boss's orders was a mistake, he says, calling such events a small worker perk

June 6, 2007

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2007

Former Harris County Toll Road Authority Director Mike Strech said Wednesday that he sees nothing wrong with having contractors pay for a party for his employees but said he made a mistake by going ahead with plans for such an event against orders from his boss.

"I guess I overstepped my authority," said Strech, who served as HCTRA executive director for six years. " ... It was a way for the employees to have a little bit of a perk."

Strech abruptly retired from the $153,000-a-year post last Thursday after his boss, Harris County Public Infrastructure Department Director Art Storey, threatened to fire him over his leadership of the toll road authority and the ongoing investigation into allegations that the agency used contractor donations to pay for parties and events.

Authorities said earlier this week that about 30 vendors who perform at least $100,000 of work for the county annually had contributed nearly $60,000 for a toll road authority employee picnic at SplashTown last June. Of that, some $45,000 was spent on the picnic. The remaining $15,000 was found in one of at least two "off-the-books" bank accounts the Harris County Auditor's Office says were overseen by Strech.

Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal said his office found no criminal wrongdoing in the circumstances surrounding the Splashtown event in part because contractors said they did not feel they had been coerced into making financial donations.

The county auditor is conducting its own investigation into whether the toll road authority used contractor contributions to pay for Christmas parties, golf tournaments and summer outings during the past five years.

Strech, who authorized last year's SplashTown picnic and was preparing to solicit contributions from contractors for a similar event planned for next month, said he sees nothing wrong with allowing companies who do business with the toll road authority to pick up such a tab.

He acknowledged, however, that he understood why some may question the practice of having contractors pay for government gatherings.

Cancellation was ordered

Storey said he had ordered Strech to cancel next month's party at SplashTown after Strech showed him the solicitation letter he was planning to send vendors.

"Mike had a big job. I have a big job," Storey said Wednesday. "People with big jobs with high responsibility do difficult things and make decisions and are accountable for their actions."

Storey said earlier he was particularly bothered by this episode as Strech is undergoing radiation treatment for prostate cancer.

Strech, who said he had hoped to retire in seven years but decided to retire early after his cancer diagnosis three months ago, said he has 38 radiation treatments remaining.

He said he was never part of a quid-pro-quo in which companies were asked for financial contributions in exchange for contracts with the toll road authority.

"There was never any pressure at all," Strech said. "I wouldn't do people like that. It was totally voluntary."

Vendors approached by the Houston Chronicle said they had not been coerced into donating money toward events, nor did they view it as an obligation to get contracts.

'Not all about a picnic'

Strech declined to discuss specifics of the ongoing investigation into contractors-sponsored events, including a February golf tournament and plans for an employee Christmas part at Tin Hall, in Cypress.

"I'm not going to go over it point by point," he said. "My friends know me, and they understand my integrity."

Storey said he simply lost confidence in Strech.

"It was not all about a picnic," Storey said. "The guy was speeding, was determined to be an unsafe driver, and his license was taken away."

Strech said he was disappointed with "how things came down the way they did" but that he has only one regret.

"I didn't get to finish a program I believe in," he said. "I thought it was good for the people of Houston."

Outings the Harris County Toll Road Authority held with vendors include:

• Picnic: An annual picnic held last summer at SplashTown for 1,400 on which $45,000 donated by vendors was spent.

• 'Rocking' celebration: A celebration when the Sam Houston Tollway was completed with a large crowd "rocking" to a band on one of the ramps.

• Parties: Christmas parties, golf outings and previous years' picnics held at a local ranch.

© 2007 Houston Chronicle:

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