Fast Eddie's Getaway

Insider deals. Outrageous perks. Exorbitant salaries. No wonder Eddie Webster's taken a permanent vacation from the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau.

According to the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, it was all just a matter of timing. Last week, when the GHCVB announced the departure of its president, Eddie Webster, it noted that he had fulfilled a five-year commitment to the bureau. In the press release, GHCVB board chairman Lupe Fraga murmured soothing phrases about "the outstanding record of progress" Webster left behind, and how it was only with regret that the board accepted the change. Webster himself was also allowed a few words. In phrases couched to suggest that he had simply finished one task and was now ready to move on to another, the release quoted Webster as saying that "I am pleased to leave behind a strong organization" and that "my family and I have decided that timing is right for a new goal, that now is an opportune time to pursue a long held goal of working in the private sector."

An opportune time indeed. Missing in the official version was the rapidity with which Webster had apparently come to his decision. On Wednesday evening, June 25, Webster was expected at the Ritz-Carlton for a major reception for the World Energy Congress, a convention that will bring 8,000 international delegates to Houston next year. The reception featured Mayor Bob Lanier and County Judge Robert Eckels; it was also an obvious forum for Webster, the city's main convention salesman. But Webster was a no-show. Instead of schmoozing the convention planners, he was downtown, cleaning out his office. The next morning at 9 he met with the GHCVB board's personnel committee; at 1:30 p.m. he met with his staff. And by that afternoon he was gone.

Also missing in the official version was any mention of a city audit of the GHCVB -- the first in the bureau's 36-year history -- that had been released in April and which had raised numerous questions about the bureau's management. Likewise absent was any reference to the fact that the day before his departure, Webster was being quizzed by a Press reporter about what appeared to be a particularly egregious misuse of his bureau expense account, and that the bureau knew that a story focusing on Webster would be appearing soon.

So perhaps the timing truly was right for Webster to go after a new goal. To get out, in other words, while the getting out could still be massaged to look good.

The Convention and Visitors Bureau is one of the many quasi-governmental agencies that the city of Houston contracts with to carry out duties the city would just as soon not be saddled with itself. The purpose of the GHCVB is to attract conventions, with their many free-spending conventioneers, and tourists, with their tourist dollars, to Houston. To help it do so, the bureau currently receives $6.5 million annually from the city's hotel/motel tax and raises another$2 million from private sources. Though it has received millions in local tax money since 1961, the first time the bureau was ever audited by the city was last autumn, when a team from the city's department of finance and administration spent four months poring over the bureau's records for fiscal year 1995-96, trying to find out what the GHCVB had done with its money. The results, released at the end of April, weren't pretty.

Of all the issues the auditors raised, none stirred more resentment than the bureau's inability to account for its Rockets tickets. Maybe it was envy that provoked the questions to bureau president Eddie Webster, who had charge of four season tickets that had cost taxpayers $8,800. But as the Rockets headed toward the NBA playoffs, reporters pressed Webster to account for passes that were supposed to be used to woo big-spending convention and tourism clients and which, suspicion had it, were actually being used by GHCVB staffers; all Webster could say in response was that someone had thrown away the calendar on which he had written the names of those who had used the tickets.

Still, compared to other questions raised by the audit, the Rockets tickets were small stuff. The city auditors noted that the bureau had:

* commingled public money and private donations, in violation of its city contract;

* inadequately accounted for $30,000 in travel and other expenses;
* allowed a board member to vote on a financial matter in which his company had a stake;

* miscalculated its administrative expenses in such a way that they looked lower than they were; and

* based an employee bonus system on estimated data and subjective judgment.
One of the audit's biggest revelations was how well the bureau compensated its top employees. Since Webster had taken over in 1992, salaries within the bureau had mushroomed. Webster's vice president of finance and administration made $119,000 in salary, car allowance, pension and bonuses; his tourism vice president, a longtime friend, made almost $138,000; and his vice president for convention sales, also a former associate, made $128,000. At the top of the pyramid stood Webster himself. With an annual salary of $154,000, a car allowance of $8,400, pension benefits of $15,000 a year, an expense account worth close to $28,000 a year and a bonus worth $50,000, Eddie Webster enjoyed compensation and expenses worth a quarter of a million dollars a year -- a figure that made him the best-paid governmental or semi-governmental official in the city.

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