Port commissioners at the Port of Oakland late Thursday placed Executive Director Omar Benjamin on paid administrative leave following revelations of employees submitting improper travel expenses, including a reimbursement for visiting a strip club.
The board of commissioners named Deborah Ale Flint, director of aviation, to interim executive director while the investigation into the port's finances continues. The board has also retained the Arnold & Porter law firm to assist in the investigation.
"We continue to take this situation very seriously," Board President Gilda Gonzalez said in a statement. "Holding those responsible accountable is our highest priority."
The port authority has put in place several steps since 2010 to strengthen the port's expense reimbursement policies and procedures to prevent fraud, including rules regarding port-issued purchasing cards, but said it is renewing its focus on the issue after discovering a 2008 receipt for $4,500 from a strip club.
The new information came to light following a series of public records requests from a local television station. The receipt went unnoticed at the time because it was for a business called "D. Houston, Inc.," which is the corporate name for Treasures Strip Club in Houston.
According to station KTVU-TV
, which broke the story earlier in the week
, Maritime Director James Kwon was the one who requested the strip-club reimbursement for entertaining about a dozen shipping industry executives in town for an intermodal conference.
The port this year updated its policies on port-issued purchasing cards, travel and entertainment following an internal audit. The port authority is also updating its guidelines for use of port vehicles and cell phones, as well as sponsors, to prevent abuse of public funds.
also reported that Kwon billed the port for $476 in haircuts, $1,000 in wine and bills from massage parlors, golf outings and a $350 pair of Ecco golf shoes. It said Kwon is still serving as maritime director.
The TV station said a loud contingent of workers
from the local branch of the Service Employees International Union attended the meeting to voice their displeasure with the port's insistence on contract concessions while executives are wasting money. The SEIU represents janitorial workers.
Commissioners urged employees to use a whistleblower hotline to report any other types of misconduct.
Benjamin was hired in 2007. He previously was a high-ranking executive for a hotel-investment company. - Eric Kulisch