GALVESTON

Roger Quiroga, who in 2013 backed a push for a desalination plant on Pelican Island, still thinks the technology has potential to solve water woes driven by climate change.

But if he were elected mayor, and his business associates also interested in the technology resumed looking on the island, he’d wave them off, Quiroga said Tuesday.

“I would probably tell the company not to build here, not while I’m mayor,” he said.

Quiroga is running against Galveston city councilman and Mayor pro tem Craig Brown to be the next mayor of Galveston.

The Daily News on Wednesday morning published a column by Kevin Moran, a former Houston Chronicle reporter, that questioned Quiroga’s motives for running for mayor and his connections to a company that made an odd presentation to city leaders more then seven years ago.

Moran recalled a Galveston City Council meeting in 2013, when Quiroga, who was then the economic development director for the Port of Galveston, accompanied developer J. Michael Graham into the chambers to pitch a fantastical idea for a major infrastructure project.

Along with Quiroga, Graham was accompanied by former Galveston Mayor Barbara Crews.

Graham, representing a firm called Transort, wanted the council to support a bid to build a $4 billion desalination plant on port land on Pelican Island. He said it would bring 100,000 jobs to the island, 200,000 gallons of potable water, 1,500 megawatts of power a day and $190 million a year in new revenue for the city.

The proposed revenue bump would be more than the city’s current operating budget, which is about $148 million, and 100,000 jobs was almost twice the city’s population.

Graham asked the council to vote then and there to create a “non-taxing infrastructure authority” to help support the idea, despite the fact the item wasn’t listed for action on the agenda, as the law requires for a vote, but only for the council to “receive a report for the Port of Galveston.”

The pitch arrived before the council apparently without any vetting by city management or the planning department.

The council, led then by Mayor Lewis Rosen, declined and told Graham to work on the idea and come back later. Graham never went back.

Quiroga at the time told the council it was blowing the “deal of the century.” The topic had never arisen in Galveston in the seven years since.

Moran’s column noted a reference Quiroga posted on his Facebook page to another company, Hellenic LLC.

Like Transort, Hellenic pitches itself as a developer of major infrastructure projects around the world, although it isn’t clear whether the company actually has succeeded in building anything.

Moran noted that Hellenic’s website, which is no longer active and only available in archived forms, listed some of the same investors connected to Transort, including Graham.

Moran accused Quiroga of not revealing a conflict of interest to the council when he appeared in 2013.

Quiroga on Wednesday said at the time of the meeting he had no financial ties to reveal. He said he was offended by Moran’s suggestion the meeting was improper or that his campaign was designed, in part, to revive the project.

Quiroga still is connected to Hellenic, he said. He’s considered a principal of the company but on Wednesday said he couldn’t clearly define what that meant.

Quiroga said his understanding was the company was focused on building desalination plants on the East Coast and in Greece, and that he would be more active in the company if it generated more interest in Texas. Despite his title, Quiroga said he hadn’t received “one red cent” from Hellenic.

He said his support of the desalination project should be a sign of the kinds of ideas he’d bring to the city, if elected mayor. He accused the current city council, which includes Craig Brown, of thinking too small.

“We don’t want to believe big and explore opportunities like that,” Quiroga said. Still, if he were elected mayor and Hellenic set its sights on Galveston, he would recommend that the company “hold off,” he said.

Quiroga isn’t the only Galveston resident or public official with ties to Hellenic, according to a review of the company’s old website.

Port of Galveston Attorney Tony Brown was listed on the website as the company’s senior vice president of legal affairs. The item noted his experience and specialities as a lawyer and his position at the port.

Tony Brown confirmed Wednesday he had done legal work for Hellenic in the past but said it was unrelated to his job at the port. He said he was unaware he’d been listed as an executive for the company until he was informed of it by The Daily News.

“I am not an investor, officer or director of this company,” Tony Brown said.

The website listed Neil Geary as its executive vice president of global public affairs. Geary’s wife, Sandra Geary, is Quiroga’s campaign treasurer, according to campaign finance documents.

Also listed among Hellenic’s investors was C.B. “Bix” Rathburn, Galveston County’s former economic development director.

Tony Brown said Wednesday his role with the company was helping it incorporate as a nonprofit. His impression was that any effort to build a desalination plant in Galveston “fell apart” because construction costs would outstrip any revenues from it because of a lack of demand, he said.

“There were no customers here,” Tony Brown said. “Nothing’s happened. I’m not spending any time on it.”

John Wayne Ferguson: 409-683-5226; john.ferguson@galvnews.com or on Twitter @johnwferguson.

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(13) comments

Jack Cross

Former Newsman Moran wrote a story about a lot of nothing. This is a 7 year old story he dredged up about a public proposal that never got off the ground and has been forgotten.

All the people involved as listed by the news in this story are respected and have strong character. Mr. Moran is trying to create something shady where there is sunlight. No wrong doing, no money changed hands, nothing , just politics.

Charlotte O'rourke

Mr. Moran wrote an editorial showing Bo is currently - according to Bo’s facebook page (until recently changed) - a “principal in Hellenic/Gaugemella” who has the same leadership and goals as Transort who pitched a port desalination plant in 2013.

I favor industry and would love the port to obtain a viable customer on Pelican Island, but one should not deny potential conflicts if they exist.

Just declare the conflicts, don’t remove them from public view, and move on.

If Bo is elected mayor, he shouldn’t advise the company (which he is a principal of) to “hold off” or come on as he would have a potential conflict of interest.

Think big, but do your due diligence. A city management district which the port wanted to create in 2013 has TAXING authority and alot of requirements are necessary to achieve this type of district.

Regardless of who wins mayor, let’s pull together at the end to make Galveston better.

Better to me means jobs and economic development and industry as well as tourism and quality of life for residents.

In summary, I took the potential conflict alluded to in the Moran editorial to be - as Bo campaigns for mayor the voters should be aware of potential conflicts as the topic of costly water bills are part of his platform, and he has advocated for desalination plants of which he is a principal in that type of business.

Wayne D Holt

Well said, Charlotte. Everyone has an "interest" that conflicts with someone else's interest. The problem only arises if that interest drives decisions that should not or would not have been made, absent the influence exerted and surreptitious benefits gained.

Fresh water has been called the oil of the 21st century. Galveston is at the end of the straw when it comes to water supply right now and yet we sit surrounded by water on all sides. Desalinization is only perceived as expensive when other sources are plentiful. As traditional freshwater sources are drawn down, desalinization will be about the only way to make up the difference in volume.

There have been incredible strides made in technology over the last several years. Communities near open water are beginning to experiment with electricity generated by wave action. Communities with few water resources are working with technology that draws moisture out of the air and distills it to drinking quality. Desalinization is a proven technology that will continue to close the price gap as water from familiar sources become less available, hence more expensive.

Setting aside any question of conflict of interest, projects like this deserve serious consideration if Galveston is going to expand alternatives to tourism-derived economic drivers. Don't fall for blue-sky sales pitches that appear not to be financially viable but by all means let's show a willingness to think beyond an economy tethered almost completely to tourism for its survival.

Charlotte O'rourke

I’m sorry I missed your comment Wayne. We both appear to want more than just a tourism driven economy. I think your comment “Don't fall for blue-sky sales pitches“ is right on.

The adage: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is - applies. If you want the city council meeting, which I did after reading the editorial, a hard sales pitch ensued which wouldn’t have allowed adequate vetting of the proposal. The city council obviously made the right call as it wasn’t even on the agenda to take action.

Charlotte O'rourke

Uh oh, forgive my early morning typos.

Watch the city council meeting

Hard sell (not sale)

Clinton Stevens

I’ll just say what many are thinking. Former Mayor Jim Yarbrough sat on the board of the largest publicly traded company on the island and collected north of a million dollars in compensation over his 6 years in office. While his son simultaneously negotiated a state and local government financed real estate empire worth tens of millions. These are facts not speculation. Yet I never saw this paper or anyone else question any potential conflicts here.

I’d rather read about the issues that are really important to voters in this race such as the one about street flooding that ran last week.

Don Schlessinger

I've heard about the real estate dealings of Yarbrough's son. They had to do with rental property and complaints of renters. You're the first person I've seen bring them to the attention of residents in Galveston.

Charlotte O'rourke

The question is not if one has conflicts. Everyone does. Known conflicts aren’t generally the issue ...it’s the unknown conflicts that create havoc.

Does the person discuss and vote on the issue or declare upfront and abstain when the issue comes before the governmental body?

I read about the street flooding and I can understand the frustration. I live here too and sometimes water seems to bubble from underground, and the streets are like an obstacle course.

But I’ve seen progress in the last 6 years. Not as much as I would like, but I would like that progress to continue.

The problem is the general fund has limits, and the city can’t fund years of deferred maintenance for street and drainage fast enough. Hence the $62 million bond issue for street and drainage repairs because both infrastructure and public safety are vital to Galveston. You shouldn’t have to cut one vital area to fund the other which has happened many times in our past.

Lisa Blair

Bo is a “Principal” in a company but he’s not sure what that means? It’s the deal of the century but if he is mayor and they wanted to come to Galveston he’d wave them off? Come on. Galveston deserves better. It’s not an issue of the viability of desalination plants, it’s about the honesty and integrity of the folks we trust to run the city. The Transort/Hellenic deal is not a one off. It’s part of a pattern of questionable judgement and back room dealing that should disqualify Bo for the mayor’s seat. We’ve been there, done that and it wasn’t good. Let’s not go back.

Jack Cross

All, (first 7 comments) if you read Bo's letter and comments he made to the newspaper, I think he has already answered all of your concerns. From what I read you saying and what Bo said, looks to me that you and Bo are in tune for what you want for Galveston. I live in Texas City so its really none of my business but I am a BOI with family ties that goes back to before the 1900 storm.

Galveston puts a lot of interest in tourism and that is good but the average citizen pays a big price with traffic and wear on streets and infrastructure. It seems to me that citizens don't get much in return and that is why the younger generations choose to leave the island. The east end flats and pelican island should be an ongoing fight with the state an federal government to allow the city to develop this land

Don Schlessinger

[thumbup]

Wayne D Holt

[thumbup]

Charlotte O'rourke

Thanks for posting your thoughts Jack. But you do know you can come home and help fix the almost total focus placed on tourism and at times it seems the purposeful demise of industry at the port. Over the last years, both of my sons have come home so I’m happy but still hoping for continued progress. As everyone probably knows I’m for diversification of the port and Pelican Island toward maritime industry and putting money to that goal instead of ever more cruise terminals. Let’s hope the cruise terminals get back up sometime in 2021 because this year not only didn’t the port make a profit but is predicted to have a net income (loss) of over ($3 million). Stay safe.

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