Port of Oakland Exec Suspended in Strip Club Probe
By Art Garcia
Commissioners at the Port of Oakland last week suspended Executive Director Omar Benjamin, placing him on immediate paid leave amid a growing investigation into allegations that one of his top aides spent $4,500 in public money at a Houston strip club. In voting unanimously on the ouster, the board of commissioners also named Aviation Director Deborah Ale Flint to immediately take over for Benjamin, who was hired in 2007.
Following directions of the board, the port has hired the San Francisco law firm of Arnold & Porter to assist the commissioners in an ongoing investigation into allegations of other alleged improper expenditures. “We continue to take this situation very seriously,” said Board President Gilda Gonzales. “Holding those responsible accountable is our highest priority.” She said commissioners have taken steps to address port expenditures, including “developing and implementing new policies and conducting an audit.”
Benjamin’s departure follows news reports that port Maritime Director James Kwon allegedly was reimbursed $4,500 for entertaining about a dozen shipping executives at a Houston strip club during a business conference in 2008. Kwon has been on a business trip in China and has made no comment. News sources also have reported that Kwon, who still is serving as Maritime Director, billed the port $476 for haircuts, $1,000 for wine, bills from massage parlors and golf outings, and a pair of $350 golf shoes.
Benjamin [seen to the left] has an annual salary of $257,508. Kwon, who joined the port in August 2007, earns $214,248 yearly.
To respond to the “concerns and stress” raised by Oakland port employees, the port has set up Employee Assistance Program sessions. Port officials also have urged employees to utilize the Whistleblower Hotline to report any “potential related issues.”
At a packed port commissioners’ meeting last week, port union employees angrily confronted the board, holding signs and complaining about questionable executive spending while the port has insisted on contract concessions. The commissioners ended the meeting and left the room. – MarEx
Art Garcia is a correspondent for the newsletter and a regular contributor to The Maritime Executive magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com for comments and/or questions.