Houston City Council Member Helena Brown issued a press release Wednesday touting her recent trip to Asia, which she funded with $11,000 in public money, as a "successful business trip" -- but it's become clear her journey to Asia was anything but, and, in fact, completely different than the city's official trip to bring direct flights from several Asian capitals to Houston.
Brown, who represents thousands of South Koreans in District A, was initially invited by Houston Airport System Director, Mario Diaz, to go to Korea and meet airlines there, but weeks ago, those airlines cancelled meetings with Diaz, who subsequently called off the trip. Brown, however, did not, continuing on to Korea -- but for unofficial purposes.
What's more, after she booked her $11,000 ticket to Asia, she launched a separate fundraising campaign in the local South Korean business community to raise donations for what, by all appearances, was a vacation trip to Korea.
She did not meet with any Korean airlines, City Press Secretary Jessica Michan told the Houston Press. Nor did she accompany Diaz in any part of his itinerary, which involved meeting aviation officials in Beijing and in Taipei, said Darian Ward, a Houston Airport System spokesperson.
It's unclear what, if anything, Brown accomplished while in Asia. Her office did not return repeated interview requests, and even Michan displayed frustration at her reticence, saying, "It's her. She really needs to answer these questions. She's the one who needs to explain why she ended up going."
Last month, Brown sent an e-mail to local South Korean leaders requesting their support, and to make checks out to her personally for her trip to Korea to meet with "Asiana Airlines, Korean Air, the Mayor of Incheon, and the Incheon Airport Director." If anyone had donated money to her, it would have broken city law under chapter 18 of the City Charter. Any direct money to council members during periods that aren't city-sanctioned for campaign purposes is illegal.
Then, late last month, Brown met with Korean businessmen in Spring Branch at a Harris County building, plying them for donations, violating county policy.
Brown traveled to Asia with her volunteer "senior adviser" William Park, said Dongwook Yang, who interviewed them for The Korean Journal. When worries emerged regarding the legality of soliciting private donations for a trip to Korea at the Spring Branch gathering, Park reportedly said: "Councilwoman Brown has very powerful lawyers to help."
The Houston Press explored Park's connections to Brown in last week's cover story, Strings Attached.
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According to Brown's press release, she delivered 5,000 local signatures to Asiana Airlines in South Korea urging a direct flight to Houston, but it's not apparent whether she met with anyone who could make that happen. "As a response, Asiana Airlines has communicated interest in having future discussions on the possibility of a non-stop Houston/Incheon flight," the release said.
Brown, who was apparently traveling as a private citizen, also met with "key government officials" in Taipei and discussed why the United States hasn't delivered 66 F-16 airplanes to Taiwan -- which aren't passenger air crafts, but actually fighter jets. Last May, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation approving the sale of the fighter jets to Taiwan.
Brown also jetted to China, where she talked over "trade, travel, and education" with the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade. The outcomes of these meetings weren't specified in the release.
While Brown was in Korea, she went to the Demilitarized Zone, which divides South and North Korea with densely-mined forests. "It had a profound impact on her as she saw first-hand the eminent (sic) danger North Korea presents to South Korea. She experienced the South Korean appreciation and love for the American military. As a city and a nation CM Brown believes that we must affirm and recommit to the support of our allies."