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.

The audit, however, didn't point up all the interconnections between board and bureau. For example, the board's chair for the last two years has been Lupe Fraga, brother of City Councilman Felix Fraga. Along with Webster and his wife, Fraga and his wife have flown to Mexico City at bureau expense to meet with Mexican customers. Considering that Fraga is a longtime Houston businessman, speaks fluent Spanish and could be an effective salesman for the city, the trip may well have been justified. But when Fraga was the man assigned to cast a critical eye on Webster's expense accounts, such chumminess might cause questions.

Also, Fraga's company, Tejas Office Products Inc., has regularly sold office supplies to the GHCVB, billing $19,000 during the last two years. Though Webster said that the office purchases are done by oral solicitation of bids, and that the office supplies are spread among three other companies besides Fraga's, his vice president for finance and administration, Rhonda Smith, said that the bureau doesn't actually request bids. Rather a supply clerk, equipped with a list of office needs, reviews catalogs and price lists on a weekly basis and determines the best prices, "keeping in mind the Minority, Women and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise requirements of the city," for which Fraga's business qualifies. For his part, Fraga said that the purchases are a completely hands-off deal, and that he is not even aware of when the orders come in or what they are for.

Last Wednesday, the day before he decided to, in the words of GHCVB's press release, "inform the board of his desire to pursue opportunities in the private sector," Webster responded calmly to queries about what, to some, might appear to be conflicts of interest. While maintaining that nothing untoward had happened, he said the GHCVB board was creating a much stiffer conflict of interest rule that would prohibit board members from voting on matters that might affect them financially. He was unfailingly polite even as he answered questions about what appeared to be a truly unusual expense report. This one in particular concerned a $42 item signed for by his wife on August 5, 1994 , at a shop in Paris called Sommeil d'Orphee, Linge de Maison. The first part of the name translates as the Sleep of Orpheus, while linge de maison means bed linens. At first, Webster said he recalled the shop as being a sidewalk cafe that wouldn't take his American Express card, so his wife had signed on her Visa card. Later, he amended his reply, saying that it was instead a bed and breakfast, and the sidewalk cafe was out in front. But when the Press called the Paris phone number on the charge slip and asked "Vous étes restaurant?" the manager replied "Pas de tout." Not at all.

Confronted with that information, Webster said, "I can't explain that other than what I'm telling you we did."

It had been a tough time for Webster. From riding high as one of the city's best-paid officials, he had suddenly become one of its most closely watched. "To be very honest with you," he said, "this situation that we are going through now with the audit has not helped morale. Because there are a lot of people here that know the good side of the story hasn't been told."

Telling it to Council as they scrutinized the city's contract with GHCVB later this summer might have been Webster's toughest sales job since arriving in Texas. But it's a sales job he ultimately opted out of. Last Thursday afternoon, he met with his staff and told them that he had worked hard, that he had never abused his expenses and that every change he had made was approved by the GHCVB board. But he also told them, family man to the end, that for the sake of his health and that of his family, it was time for him to go into the private sector.

What he likely didn't tell them is that he had an ace in the hole. His employment contract allowed him a comfortable severance package: a year's pay at $154,000. But then again, no one yet knows what will happen to the new BMW sedan that the bureau had leased for him.

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