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Future of  Jordy Tollett, Executive Director of the Greater Houston Convention and
 Visitors Bureau, in Danger;  A Two-hour Lunch with Several Drinks Caught on Tape
By Kristen Mack, Houston ChronicleMcClatchy-Tribune Business News

July 12, 2006 -- A two-hour lunch with several drinks, caught by a television camera, has put a cloud on the future of longtime city insider and booster Jordy Tollett.

A veteran of four mayoral administrations, Tollett has served since 1998 as executive director of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau. The bureau has scheduled an emergency meeting for Thursday to consider Tollett's contract.

The television piece, which aired Monday on KPRC (Channel 2), caught Tollett drinking over the noon hour on more than one occasion then driving away from a Midtown restaurant. "The board will investigate the information brought forward. We will examine information and will make a recommendation," said Doug Horn, chairman of the visitors bureau board. "I can't predict what will come out of that meeting. It's not a simple cut-and-dry issue. Jordy has done a lot for the city."

Tollett, who did not return phone calls Tuesday, has hired lawyer Rusty Hardin to represent him. "He hasn't done anything wrong," Hardin said. He added that he was retained to walk Tollett through the board process. "I think sometimes, when people feel like they are being unfairly criticized they tend to get a little defensive and too strong in their response."

Does White want a change?

Mayor Bill White has never afforded more than faint praise to Tollett, whose name once appeared on a billboard for a topless club and who is known for late-hours revelry and a unique fashion sense. And now the mayor is suggesting it might be time for Tollett to move on. "He has a long career of public service and a number of fans and detractors," White said. "The bureau could benefit from fresh energy and ideas."

When White took office in 2004, he asked a task force to look at what type of person should be running the bureau, an indicator to some that he was looking to replace Tollett. White can't do that himself but has influence because the city provides more than $10 million in annual funding for the bureau.

Tollett's five-year contract is up in February. He makes about $200,000 a year. "He's had a multiple-year contract. It had a fixed term. That contract has been honored," White said Tuesday. "After that time, every large public organization should consider alternatives and I will encourage the bureau to do so." The bureau has to decide what the requirements of Tollett's contract are and what happens between now and February, White said.

The board's executive committee will meet on the matter Thursday, Horn said, but it probably won't take any action for a couple of weeks.

Critical of record-keeping

Besides the television report, Tollett will have to respond to a draft city controller's audit that is critical of certain management practices and record-keeping at the bureau. Horn anticipates the controller's audit to be completed in the next 10 days and says that he expects it to have some impact on the board's decision. The mayor's stance also is likely to carry some weight.

"The mayor's our partner, we take his advice to heart," Horn said. But he also noted Tollett's strengths. "My personal feeling is Jordy has been an exceptionally strong person for the bureau," Horn said. "He can be controversial."

Since Tollett took over the bureau, Horn said, the city's annual hotel room night bookings have grown to 650,000. "That is an amazing feat. He's influenced the development and structure downtown and improved Houston's ability to sell itself."

Tollett started his public service with then-Mayor Jim McConn in 1981. At 29, Tollett was heading what later became the convention and entertainment facilities department. He lasted through mayors Kathy Whitmire, Bob Lanier and Lee Brown, serving briefly as Brown's chief of staff while also heading the bureau.

"He's been a survivor," said longtime City Hall lobbyist Robert Miller. "We're about to find out if he's bulletproof."

Tollett was charged with drunken driving in 2001 and 2002. For a while he stopped drinking. But he's always been known for his colorful approach to nurturing convention business. In 1989, he spent more than $2,000 entertaining prospects at Rick's, a topless club. When asked about the expenses, he said clients had asked to go to the club -- an endorsement that appeared without his permission on a Rick's billboard.

Hardin said Tollett sometimes drinks at lunch, and sometimes doesn't. Tollett may be unorthodox, Hardin said, but "when you judge by objective standards, he's done a heck of a job."

The audit, more than the TV piece, Hardin said, is likely to determine his fate. The last time the city conducted an audit of the bureau was in the mid-1990s, leading to the departure of then-director Eddie Webster.

'Job is not a 9-to-5'

Councilwoman Carol Alvarado, a longtime Tollett friend, came to his defense Tuesday. "I don't care when he takes his lunch break and how long he takes," she said. "He's in the entertainment business. His job is not a 9-to-5. He doesn't sit behind a desk and sometimes that means going to meet his clients at bars." He brings business to the city, she said. He's had his hand in every major event the city has held in the last few years -- including the Super Bowl, and the Major League Baseball and NBA All-Star games -- and he ought to be judged on those successes, she said.

But he also faced criticism over preparations for the Essence Music Festival at Reliant Park over the July Fourth weekend, after organizers complained that the city hadn't done enough for attendees.

Visitors bureau board member Michael Massa, who owns a downtown restaurant, said he expects the panel will assess Tollett's strengths and quirks. "Jordy's reputation is pretty well-known. People usually give a wink and a nod, but they are used to it," Massa said. "He still has a stronghold of support and he's been known to survive. You can't ever underestimate Jordy." kristen.mack@chron.com

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Copyright (c) 2006, Houston Chronicle

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