CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — The Port of Corpus Christi Authority is among the largest ports in the county, and more jobs in the Coastal Bend are tied to the port than any other business.
Its impact is massive and so are the credit card bills racked up by its executive director.
For months, 6 Investigates has been poring over receipts and found a pattern of lavish spending that now has port commissioners asking questions.
The port is an economic powerhouse for the region. Even though it acts like a private business in many cases, it is a government entity, overseen by a board of commissioners appointed by local government bodies.
The City of Corpus Christi appoints three commissioners, Nueces County another three, and San Patricio County appoints one. Those commissioners are then responsible for hiring an executive director, to handle the day-to-day operations of the port.
It's not uncommon for executives of large entities to have large credit card bills. At a place like the port — wining and dining come with the territory of attracting new business. But some of the expenditures 6 Investigates uncovered over the past 14 months can be considered excessive.
The port spent more than $200,000 to send 27 people on a five-day trip to Israel last November to visit desalination facilities. Of those 27 people, five were port employees and ten were members of the Texas State Legislature or their staff. The remainder included one lobbyist and people associated with businesses connected with desalination.
During that trip, the port paid $12,670 for area tours and $14,854.55 for a reception for 26 people.
Airfare for just 12 of the 27 people on the trip cost $116,294.09.
As the CEO of the Port of Corpus Christi, I travel extensively to promote job-creating investments for the Coastal Bend area. Port Commissioners and Port staff also travel extensively for the same purpose. Building trust and confidence among industry and political leaders at the highest level is a must if we are to create a safe and attractive business climate for these major investors/customers. This requires face-to-face gatherings in many venues, both domestic and international as the Port of Corpus Christi is a global trade organization. All expenses incurred by me or professional staff are in compliance with Port policies, internal reviews, state laws, and the highest of ethical standards. Without exception, any expenses that may have been incurred of a personal nature are paid for with a personal credit card or are reimbursed promptly to the Port of Corpus Christi.
Strawbridge is the highest-paid local government employee. He made over $750,000 last year in salary and bonuses.
Now, his expenditures, and those of senior port staff, are under review by auditors.
All of the data gathered by 6 Investigates was obtained through public information requests and the numbers are a bit staggering.
For example, Strawbridge spent an average of $10,000 per month on meals, drinks and snacks.
And the receipts don't paint a complete picture.
In addition to missing documents, most of the receipts were not itemized. But those that were showed almost half going to alcohol.
For example, a December 2021 receipt from the Corpus Christi Yacht Club includes 39 alcoholic drinks for a table of four on a Saturday at 6:29 p.m.
A bill from a Tuesday in November 2021 at 3:27 p.m. is almost entirely comprised of alcohol. Another bill in September of last year was also exclusively for alcoholic beverages.
6 Investigates also found the port paid for two world series tickets and 13 flights to West Palm Beach, Florida. Which is where his girlfriend lives.
Documents also show the port paid for an Uber to his mother's house in Arizona, extra nights at hotels — a few at over $1,000 a night — and expenses in one city while flights show he was in another.
For instance, in February 2022, Strawbridge hired a car to pick him up at a hotel in Vail at 1:30 pm, for a flight back to San Antonio that left at 3:30 p.m. But there are charges made in Vail on his card at after his flight to San Antonio would have departed. They total more than $600 at a restaurant and nearly $1100 for one extra night at the hotel.
The expense reports provided in response to a public information request do not indicate if the original flight was canceled or rescheduled.
6 Investigates asked Strawbridge about his expenditures, and he said, via a written statement, "I have never engaged in unethical behavior or misuse of funds, nor have I ever been accused of such. I have never engaged in any activity using my professional position as the CEO of the Port of Corpus Christi for personal gain outside of my compensation package afforded me by the Port Commission."
Three months ago, Strawbridge formed his own company, US Desalination LLC. He also purchased a domain name for that company.
To date, records show the port has spent over $41 million pursuing desalination.
6 Investigates asked Strawbridge about the formation of this LLC and he said it is a personal investment.
With respect to US Desalination, LLC and usdesal.com, these are personal investments in the domain name and entity name only. Think of it as digital real estate. With the anticipated proliferation of desalination in the United States, it is likely these names may have value at some point in the future. No business activities or discussions of business activity have ever taken place since the registrations of the entity and domain. Nor was there any attempt to hide these registrations as is evidenced by the public availability of the registration on the State of Texas, Secretary of State database and website.
No business activities have ever been conducted under the name US Desalination, LLC. No bank accounts exist. No website has been created. No email account or letterhead has been created. There have been no contracts, business plans, marketing efforts, etc. No financial considerations have ever been exchanged or ever even discussed with anyone. There have been NO activities whatsoever conducted by me (or anyone else to my knowledge) under this entity or domain name. This was purely a personal investment in the name and domain.
Earlier this month, Strawbridge began negotiating a severance package with the port.
He's requesting over one million dollars, after taxes, that the company car be signed over to him, a requirement that the port pay for any future legal fees, even if he is found guilty of a crime, and that he doesn't have to pay back unauthorized travel or entertainment expenses.
Strawbridge has also asked the port to release him from any claims it may have against him.
Sources tell us the port denied this version of the separation agreement, but his employment is scheduled to be a topic of discussion for port commissioners tomorrow, in executive session.
6 Investigates will be at this meeting, and share updates and what port commissioners have to say.
As the CEO of the Port of Corpus Christi I travel extensively to promote job-creating investments for the Coastal Bend area. Port Commissioners and Port staff also travel extensively for the same purpose. Building trust and confidence among industry and political leaders at the highest level is a must if we are to create a safe and attractive business climate for these major investors/customers. This requires faceto-face gatherings in many venues, both domestic and international as the Port of Corpus Christi is a global trade organization. All expenses incurred by me or professional staff are in compliance with Port policies, internal reviews, state laws, and the highest of ethical standards. Without exception, any expenses that may have been incurred of a personal nature are paid for with a personal credit card or are reimbursed promptly to the Port of Corpus Christi.
Over my 30-plus year career as a globally respected industry professional, I have never engaged in unethical behavior or misuse of funds, nor have I ever been accused of such. I have NEVER engaged in any activity using my professional position as the CEO of the Port of Corpus Christi for personal gain outside of my compensation package afforded me by the Port Commission. The falsehoods and half-truths that have been promulgated by what appears to be a political “witch-hunt” by those who perhaps stand to gain from my departure as CEO of the Port of Corpus Christi should be called out. The individuals who are using gossip and innuendo on social media, and possibly your media outlet, in an attempt to sully my good name and the stellar reputation of the Port of Corpus Christi appear to be engaged in a targeted smear campaign in hopes of achieving my early departure. We will always counter this behavior with truths and facts.
I invite the Chairman Zahn, Vice Chairman Engel, and the rest of the Port Commission to join me in rejecting these assertions and stand up to these nefarious actors. We must transcend this bad behavior with dignity and pride of what we have accomplished and continue to accomplish, and not be distracted by the naysayers whom perhaps envy the achievements and success the Port of Corpus Christi has realized during my tenure.
Accountability is one of the Port of Corpus Christi’s core values. I am accountable to the Port Commission, to Port Staff, and most notably, to myself. In that vein I have and will always conduct myself with the highest level of integrity and honor, and I will vehemently protect my professional reputation.