Port of Oakland Saga Continues
By Art Garcia
Port of Oakland Executive Director Omar Benjamin [seen in thumb image] resigned on Monday in the wake of a scandal over questionable expenses charged to the port. Benjamin and Maritime Director James Kwon were placed on paid administrative leave in mid-October as port officials investigated a $4,500 expense for a 2008 gathering to entertain shipping executives at a Houston strip club. The executives, with BNSF Railway, have said they have no record of being at the club at the time.
Benjamin, in his letter of resignation to port commissioners, said he was stepping down because of the issues of expense reimbursement and obstacles that are too great to overcome. Benjamin also said, “I accept responsibility for my actions and those who worked under my leadership.” He later e-mailed that he was “cooperating with the port inquiry and will do whatever I can to resolve this matter constructively and in the interests of the Port of Oakland.”
An investigation by an Oakland TV station found Benjamin’s name had been removed from the Texas club’s receipt. Meanwhile, Kwon, who was ordered by commissioners to return immediately from a trip to China and Korea, remains on administrative leave as the port continues its investigation through a retained international law firm. And as scrutiny over the expenses continued, the port released the full version of the strip club’s expense record. It showed for the first time that Benjamin helped run up the club bill that was expensed as a normal business meeting.
It is the port’s policy to allow “reasonable and necessary travel, entertainment and other expenditures incurred in the course of conducting the business of the port.” What’s not stated is where port employees can entertain or how much can be spent for entertainment. Kwon could be subject to dismissal if the current investigation shows the strip club expenses were improperly billed to the port.
Kwon’s attorney said his client returned from Korea, met with lawyers hired by the port and “fully expects to be cleared of any wrongdoing.” Kwon returned to Korea to be with his ailing mother-in-law. Port financial records show he had also expensed $476 for haircuts, $1,000 in wine, bills from massage parlors, golf outings and a $350 pair of golf shoes. Kwon’s 2011 salary was $214,248. Benjamin’s was $257,508.
The port’s Aviation Director, Deborah Ale Flint, is serving as Acting Executive Director. She was put in charge of operations at the port, sixth largest in the United States, after Benjamin was placed on leave October 18. – MarEx
Garcia has been tracking developments at the Port of Oakland since the scandal broke.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.