FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) - The posh Peabody Hotel in Orlando, Fla., is known for its trained ducks that waddle down the red carpet, dazzling their guests.
The hotel is also where Richard Ruddell, executive director of the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, attended a conference earlier this year – a trip costing taxpayers more than $3,200.
Ruddell heads up Fort Worth's mass transit agency, also known as The T, which is three to four years behind in building an $800 million commuter rail line. It is a delay that's drawn criticism from local office holders and civic leaders who say more focus needs to be placed on completing the project.
Despite that backlog, a CBS 11 News investigation has found that Ruddell and members of The T's board of directors have found plenty of money to take conference trips …at least $53,000 worth from May 2011 through last July.
Those trips include a ski outing in the Rocky Mountains in February.
Expense records obtained by CBS 11 News through an open records request also show that members of The T's executive staff have billed taxpayers for conferences as close as Dallas, where they chose to stay in expensive hotel rooms, like the Hyatt Regency at Reunion, rather than drive back home for the evening.
"Just saying ski trip would raise my eyebrows," said Fort Worth City Councilman Jungus Jordan, a long-time leader of mass transit initiatives in North Texas.
Jordan said he was bothered by what CBS 11 uncovered. Referring to the conference trips, he said, "Were you there to have a good time, or were you there to conduct business …the taxpayers need to know the answer to that."
Jordan, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price and the rest of the City Council have little oversight to tell The T what to do. But they do have the authority to appoint new board members to the agency. And they have asked for a performance audit from The T – a request made nearly three months ago, with no response as of yet.
In addition, a new advisory committee, made up of local officials and civic leaders, has been formed to help push along the commuter rail project.
"It's now time to advance passenger rail," Jordan said. "It's now long overdue."
Planning for the thirty-seven-mile "Tex Rail" project began nearly a decade ago, funded by a sales tax and a federal grant.
Yet, while Ruddell and The T's board members traveled the country for conferences, the completion date for the Tex Rail project -- originally scheduled for this year -- has now been pushed back to 2016.
When shown a receipt for The T's ski outing, Jordan said, "As a taxpayer, my question would be who's paying for this? What's the business purpose? That's a legitimate question that any taxpayer has the right to ask."
Since CBS 11 began its investigation, The T has said Ruddell and the executive staff will reimburse the cost of the ski event.
No one with The T responded to our requests for on-camera interviews, but, in an email, the agency said "…an internal discussion about reimbursement for this optional conference activity was in progress …and those who participated have reimbursed the agency the $115 cost for this activity."
Ruddell also sent an email to Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price and to City Council members giving them a heads up about what we found, saying that while the ski outing "provided a valuable networking opportunity with transit officials from around the country, we believe it was an event that should have been paid personally by those who attended it."
In a separate statement emailed to CBS 11, Ruddell defended his travel expenses that cost taxpayers more than $15,000 from July 2011 through last July. It said, in part: "The T recognizes the importance of such educational opportunities and believes the associated expenses help the agency serve our customer."
When shown the statement, Jordan said he did not feel Ruddell went far enough in justifying the conference trips and associated expenses.
"It's not good enough for me," the city councilman said, and "it's not good enough for the taxpayers."
If you want to reach CBS 11′s Investigative Producer Jack Douglas Jr., you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want to reach CBS 11′s Investigative Reporter Ginger Allen, you can email her at email@example.com
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