Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Just one week after the NTTA raises toll rates, it's 'Good night, Vienna!'

NTTA Execs Skip Out On Pricey Conference On Your $


Bennett Cunningham Reporting
(CBS 11 News)
Copuyright 2007

Vienna, AUSTRIA ― While you were stuck in rush hour traffic, some North Texas Tollway Authority officials were flying first class to another continent, sampling fine foods and wine in the crown jewel of Europe.

Just one week after the NTTA raised the toll rates, it sent 5 representatives to the 75th Annual International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association conference in Vienna, Austria.

"We did not raise rates for our travel budget," said the newly hired NTTA Executive Director Jorge Figueredo.

The price tag for the IBTTA conference: $42,500, of your toll money to learn how to build more toll roads.

A CBS 11 News crew followed the NTTA representatives to see if consumers were getting their money's worth.

Several of the NTTA representatives were able to stretch out on the long flight to Vienna, enjoying first and business class seats at a cost of more than $7,000 a ticket. Those representatives were NTTA CFO Susan Buse, Director of Project Evaluation Department Jerry Shelton and Governor Appointed Board Member Robert Shepard.

Tollway policy allows these people to pick business class over coach for international travel, an expense typically 10 times the price of a typical coach seat.

NTTA paid approximately $600 per person to register for the conference and nearly $300 per night for a room at the 4-star Vienna Hilton. Some NTTA representatives brought their wives.

NTTA officials enjoyed lavish parties in a 150-year-old castle, feasting on handcrafted chocolates and sipping Austrian wine. One night, representatives were serenaded by the Vienna Boys Choir.

All of these lavish parties were sponsored by past or current tollway vendors like HNTB, Wilbur Smith Inc., and the executive director's former employer PBS&J. Some of these companies still do business with officials.

Figueredo feels the 5,000 mile trip was critical for the NTTA "to understand the global market as we compete in North Texas."

On the first morning of the conference, everyone attended the meetings. But after that, our cameras caught some members playing hooky.

Two members of the NTTA board of directors, Dave Denison and Bob Shepard, skipped out on late morning meetings. Both men chose to window-shop on the Vienna streets.

Denison, who didn't use a cane on day one, stopped to purchase a souvenir walking stick. For nearly 2 hours, while their toll road colleagues sat in conferences paid for by NTTA users, these men strolled the shopping district of Vienna.

One of the sessions they missed was a discussion on future possibilities of toll road partnerships and planning. The presenter was NTTA Deputy Executive Director Rick Herrington.

Dennison and Shepherd did make it back to the hotel just in time for a fully catered lunch.

When confronted with the video of board members playing hooky, Figueredo said, "I'm disappointed. There is a culture I want to instill in this place that hasn't taken root yet." He refused to elaborate or describe the current culture at the NTTA that he is trying to change.

After the gourmet lunch, board member Denison skipped meetings and, with his new walking stick, gazed upon the beauty of Vienna's famous Stadtpark. For more than an hour, he walked down the tree line boulevards of old Vienna. He made it back the hotel toward the end of the day.

That evening, everyone, including Denison and Shepard, attended a fancy dinner party sponsored by NTTA expansion contractor Wilbur Smith Inc. The venue was at the Old Vienna Stock Exchange, a beautiful building with a huge staircase leading to a grand ballroom.

If the hooky playing wasn't bad on day 2, day 3 was worse. Our cameras caught the two board members, their wives and Deputy Executive Director Rick Herrington skipping out of the hotel at 7:30 a.m. to travel out of the country to Bratislava, Slovakia.

Cameras caught them boarding a bus to head out for the entire day, skipping all the conference events. According to the tour guide, they enjoyed a castle tour and plenty of time for shopping.

Eight hours later, they returned, not via a bus, but a high speed boat up the Danube River. They missed every session that day, including one on fighting congestion and a tour of the Austrian toll way.

A few hours later, they all attended a dinner party as conference participants celebrated the end to 4 days of learning about toll ways.

When asked if the NTTA would ask for some of the money back from the conference, Figueredo said, "That thought never crossed my mind."

Figueredo did reduce the number of people going to Austria. But the result was thousands of dollars in non-refundable airline tickets and non-refundable registration fees. Figueredo is appealing for a refund of the registration fees with the conference executives.

CBS11 contacted a majority of IBTTA members in the United States and most did not go to Vienna. Officials at the famed New Jersey Turnpike said, "We can do more work here than in Vienna."

When asked what his people learned from the toll road conference and trip to Vienna, Figueredo said he couldn't provide a detailed answer.

The NTTA tells CBS11 that it did not pay for the airfare for any of the wives of representatives.

Governor Rick Perry commented on the story stating, "The Governor expects any official who operates in the public trust to act in good faith and use good judgment when deciding to attend conferences or other meetings or other similar meetings."

The State Auditors Offices told CBS11 that it has no jurisdiction or oversight over the NTTA. Since the State of Texas created the NTTA, lawmakers are the only ones who can do anything to curtail control of the Authority.

© 2007 CBS Broadcasting Inc.: www.cbs11tv.com

"The streets of Vienna are paved with culture, the streets of other cities with asphalt."--Karl Kraus

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