Helena Brown Stayed at Luxury Hotels on Publicly Funded Trip to Asia

Marking yet another strange turn involving City Council Member Helena Brown's recent trip to Asia, Brown stayed at a series of luxury hotels in Beijing and Seoul, charging the city more than $2,000 in six days of lodging expenses, according to her expense report. A Brown spokesman wrote in e-mail to the Houston Press that she chose these locations because they were the most "cost-effective options" available in Taipei, Seoul and Beijing.

She must not have been looking very hard. In Beijing, she stayed in at the five-start hotel, JW Marriott, which calls itself on its Web site "spectacular," featuring the "most luxurious accommodations," three "exquisite" restaurants and rainforest showers. Brown stayed three nights at the hotel, spending $1,210. It's unclear what her specific accommodations were; her office declined repeated requests for comment.

Next, she jetted to Seoul, South Korea, where she checked into the downtown Lotte Hotel, another opulent number complete with -- believe it or not -- a Greek statue inside the gym. The city got charged for $650 for her two nights there.

According to her travel itinerary, she met with at least two large, state-run oil companies while in Beijing -- the China National Offshore Oil Corporation and SINOPEC Corporation. These meetings weren't mentioned in Brown's press release last week, and it's unclear why, on a trip she said was to orchestrate a direct flight between Houston and Seoul, she sat down with large Chinese oil companies. She also met with Cameron International, another energy company, which is actually based in Houston.

She apparently traveled with her volunteer "senior adviser," William Park, who was banned from the investments industry last year for failing to pay a Los Angeles woman who successfully sued him for a bevy of financial law violations. Park, who was involved in energy investments while in the industry, has extensive business contacts in Los Angeles and Houston Asian communities, according to several people we interviewed. Park's relationship with Brown was explored in last week's cover story, Strings Attached.

Though Brown ultimately charged the city $13,573 on her trip to Asia, she ran a separate fund-raising campaign for the trip last month involving at least one e-mail and meeting with the local Korean business community. She asked them to make checks out directly to her. It's unclear whether she was successful raising money, but if she had been, it would have been a violation of city law under Chapter 18 of the City Charter, which bans direct contributions except during a campaign.

The trip -- and its extravagance -- contrasts with the narrative Brown projects at City Council meetings, where she castigates fiscal wantonness and needless spending. In her six months in office, she's voted against payment to caregivers of the chronically ill and against fulfilling city pension obligations.

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Terrence McCoy
Contact: Terrence McCoy