Wednesday, April 30, 2008

North Texas Tollway Officials 'pork out' on commuter toll taxes

Donuts, Pizza and Play Time At NTTA


Bennett Cunningham
CBS 11 News (DALLAS)
Copyriht 2008

They say they're busy building new toll roads, but it appears some North Texas Tollway officials have plenty of time to dine out. While gas prices sky rocket, tolls increase, and you count every penny, it appears they're spending your money on expensive dinners, wine and catered lunches.

For the last 5 months, we've been building a database, monitoring how the North Texas Tollway Authority [NTTA] spends your money. We found receipts for thousand-dollar feasts, personalized M&M candies and customized birthday cards. But the one common thread we found is that tollway officials don't like meeting without eating.

Is it a toll booth or a tip jar? Tollway officials are using your money to pay for more than $100,000 in food, entertainment and much more.

Most motorists we spoke to told us things like "that's not what it's supposed to go to," "I don't think it should be spent on that," and "it's supposed to better our roads, not parties."

CBS 11 reviewed credit card receipts dating back to 2006. Here's what NTTA officials did with your money:

$100,000 spent on food--and $40,000 of that was for catering. A lot of that money was spent to feed Tollway board members at monthly meetings. Nearly every meeting was catered with fresh fruit and a full spread for lunch for up to 50 people. See some of the receipts here, here, here, here and here.

There are only nine people on the board.

Michael Sullivan of Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, a consumer watchdog group in Austin, told us "they [NTTA] violated the trust of the people at the Tollway." He calls this type of spending irresponsible and outrageous. "This is a culture that says, 'Hey, it's free money. This money belongs to someone else so I can go mad with it.'"

Tollway records show over the last two years:
  • One Tollway official spent $2,000 on donuts, making a run to a donut shop at least once a month.
  • The NTTA spent $3,500 for pizza.
  • They also spent about $1,000 at Party City for tiki lanterns, beverage and lunch napkins, and many other party items.
Jorge Figueredo is Executive Director of the NTTA. He was hired in the summer of 2007. "We have to remember we are public servants and this is the public's money," he said. After about six months of being at the helm, he told us "I have changed the rules, hired an internal auditor, so this doesn't happen again."

But does he really mean it this time? Last year, we followed five Tollway officials to Vienna, Austria for an international Tollway meeting. We watched as they partied and skipped meetings that you paid for. In November 2007, Figueredo told us, "I'm disappointed. There is a culture I want to instill in this place that hasn't taken root yet."

But records show the party wasn't over yet, and according to Michael Sullivan of Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, "That's the only culture that I have seen changed--that they are going for a different flavor of food."

One month after our first interview, Figueredo allowed Tollway employees to use your money for the following:

  • On December 11th there was a $576 grocery bill for a holiday dinner, including about a dozen turkeys and the fixings
  • Three days later, the NTTA held a department meeting at Pappadeaux's seafood. Employees munched on crawfish and shrimp and 15 desserts - including crème brulee, chocolate brownies and key lime pie. The bill was $529.
  • A few days later, and NTTA threw another catered Christmas dinner. This one cost $500.
  • Two days later they had another catered holiday meal--the fourth one in the month of December. The cost was $912.
  • The next day they held Christmas celebration number five. This one was at Texas de Brazil, a Brazilian style steak house, for $626.
  • And a Christmas Eve lunch--holiday meal number six--at Dickey's Bar-B-Que cost $243.We've posted all of these receipts from December, 2007 in this .pdf file.

There were also orders from Honey Baked Hams. The NTTA spent $1,100 for those and hundreds of dollars in gift cards for managers. We asked Figueredo if anyone was going to get fired over this. He told us since the policy was broadly written, no. But, he said, from this point forward people violating the policy will lose their jobs.

But as we came to discover, the policy wasn't "broadly" written. Tollway officials later admitted there was no policy. That's why under Figueredo's watch, the NTTA was allowed to pay $1,000 for managers to spend the day at Dallas Speed Zone, which is an entertainment venue where you can race cars. The receipt shows they paid a "group time play fee" there.

And according to this receipt, Figueredo joined other staffers, including the Tollway's then-C.F.O. Susan Buse, for fine dining at the Crescent Court's private dining club. You paid $100 a plate for their food and drinks.

Figueredo also attended an appreciation dinner for a former NTTA colleague. That dinner cost you $1,400.

We asked Governor Rick Perry about the NTTA's spending habits and he told us the spending was "indefensible."

A day after our interview with Executive Director Figueredo, he announced the immediate suspension of all lunch and dinner meetings, parties/farewells, grocery items, gifts, gift certificates, cards and flowers. The credit card policy is being thoroughly reviewed. Also, the Tollway has reigned in the 50+ credit cards that floated around the agency. Figueredo also canceled catered meals for board meetings earlier this year.

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