Last month, I wrote about all the political bickering affecting port authorities along the U.S. West Coast, particularly the key gateways of Long Beach and Seattle. Turns out that as that issue went to press, the juiciest stuff yet was just being revealed in Oakland.
In mid-October, two high-ranking executives, including now former Executive Director Omar Benjamin, at Northern California’s biggest port, were placed on administrative leave as a result of a travel expenses scandal revealed by a local television station.(Benjamin retired abruptly on Nov. 12.)
Benjamin and Maritime Director James Kwon are alleged to have sought reimbursement for a bill of more than $4,500 for entertaining freight industry officials at a strip club in Houston back in 2008, among other allegedly unauthorized travel expenses.
“I am as disappointed as you are at the allegations of improper expenditures,” Interim Director Deborah Ale Flint wrote in a message to the public in early November. “I take these allegations seriously, and assure you that we are acting as swiftly and thoroughly as possible to address them.”
The port authority said it has tightened rules on travel expense reimbursements since 2010, and Flint said Oakland would “emerge from this time as an even better and stronger organization.”
But it’s another blow to the organizations that run U.S. West Coast ports. Last month, I noted that there was disharmony among Long Beach’s harbor commission over where to relocate the port’s new administrative headquarters. In late summer, that decision led to incriminating accusations of sweetheart deals for certain commissioners and retired port staff.
As an update, however, there was some resolution in early November, when the commission voted to temporarily move the port’s offices to a location near the Long Beach Airport, as it sought a more permanent home in downtown Long Beach, nearer the port. — Eric Johnson