The city of Jerusalem is one of the oldest cities in the world and it has a new defender: Texas Governor Rick Perry.
In August, Perry was given the “Defender of Jerusalem” award. So Perry and his wife flew first class to Israel at more than $5,000 per ticket. The governor’s security detail of four Department of Public Safety (DPS) officers was also along for the trip.
They all took the 7,000 mile journey to accept the award at a time when the governor was asking everyone else in state government to cut back on travel. During a speech in Houston, Perry directed state agencies to “curtail taxpayer funded travel.”
According to state documents, the taxpayers’ bill just to take Perry’s security officers on the 5-day trip was more than $70,000. The breakdown includes $17,000 for rooms at the swanky King David Hotel, nearly $13,000 for food and more than 350 hours of overtime.
The specific price tag for the governor and his wife are secret. So when KEYE TV sister station CBS 11 (KTVT) asked to see the governor’s expense records for the trip, we received four pages and no specifics. Perry refused to do a formal interview with us and would only say, “Going to Israel or other countries is a wise investment for the state of Texas.”
Keith Elkins is executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. Elkins and his organization fight for government transparency. Elkins says, “This Governor operates under the premise of ‘believe what I say, not what I do.'” While Elkins suggests, “There is something else going on here,” he doesn’t know what that ‘something’ is.
Records obtained by CBS 11 show the governor’s airfare and trip costs for he and his wife were paid for by Irwin Katsof, a financier for energy companies around the world. And the man who presented Perry with the Defender of Jerusalem award,
Guma Aguiar, owns a company that made billions of dollars in the Texas natural gas industry. Aguiar also created the award given to Perry.
Just two weeks before Aguiar and Perry posed for pictures in Israel, Aguiar posed for a mug shot in Florida. He was arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia and possession of marijuana. Aguiar pleaded no contest.
Sheila Krumholz is the executive director of the Washington D.C. based Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks the effect of money on public policy. She says, “There is just too much of a potential for a conflict of interest with these trips particularly with privately sponsored trips.” Krumholz also wonders, “Is this the real deal or a sleight of hand to provide political cover of those attending?”
CBS 11 obtained a list of people on the trip. The organizers describe those attending as “an elite cadre of 20 executives in, gas and oil, biotech, finance and technology.” The list includes an out of state Congresswoman and Texas Railroad Commissioner Victor Carrillo, whose agency regulates the oil and natural gas industry in Texas.
Carrillo says he paid his own way but refused to show CBS 11 any of his expenses. Also on the list of travelers: a host of energy executives, the governor’s family — which included his son’s fiancée — and a member of the State Senate Committee on Natural Resources, Juan Hinojosa of McAllen. Hinojosa told us the trip was not about energy. “I don’t recall discussions about oil and gas with the business people there,” he said.
The governor and others met with the President of Israel, the Prime Minster and Israeli soldiers. They toured the old city of Jerusalem and snapped photos of Aggie souvenirs (the governor is a graduate of Texas A&M). Perry even took time to do an interview with an Israeli TV station. Remember, the governor is doing all this while asking other state employees to “curtail travel.”
Like the governor, State Senator Hinojosa’s entire trip was paid for by Katsof, the financier. Hinojosa also received the Defender of Jerusalem Award. But unlike the governor’s four pages of documents, Hinojosa gave us everything he had — fully disclosing the nature of the trip.
Hinojosa maintains there was no conflict of interest by accepting the trip. “We as public officials have to make decision on public policy. Not who contributes money or pays for a trip,” he explained. But Krumholz disagreed, saying, “This trip raises real concerns for the potential for a secret junket.”
The trip also had its share of perks. CBS 11 obtained private emails and found the organizer, Katsof, asked attendees what kind of scotch they preferred for a “scotch and cigar bar” where they would admire “a starry Jerusalem.” Krumholz says trips like this “can be a lucrative way to conduct business. You pay for vacation and in return you may get contracts or government brokered deals worth millions of dollars.”
In late May a Texas appellate court ruled that all DPS expense reports for the governor’s security detail were to be made public. A few days later, the state legislature passed a bill to get around that court ruling, allowing DPS to hide the expense reports of the governor’s security detail from public view. The law took effect immediately.