Irving officials face questions about entertainment center

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by BRETT SHIPP

WFAA

Posted on November 15, 2010 at 11:06 PM

Updated Thursday, Jun 9 at 3:03 PM

NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES

IRVING — The Las Colinas Entertainment Center is being billed at the "shining new star in the world of live music, culture and cuisine."

But it's another kind of billing that may leave Irving taxpayers feeling they've been played.

The Las Colinas Entertainment Center, four years in planning, was set to open late next year and put Irving back on the map.

And while the City of Irving has already put up $22 million, the project is still on paper. No dirt has turned, and at center stage is Billy Bob Barnett and stack of questionable bills.

When word surfaced that Texas Stadium would crumble, Irving City officials feared the dust would settle on any dreams of ever becoming another viable destination.

That is, until an entertainment concept unlike any other came along: A state of the art, five-level complex of nine music stages and 14 original restaurants, clubs, plazas, shops, festivals and fountains.

It's the co-creation of a man known to many as "Billy Bob."

The creator of the legendary Billy Bob's Texas honky tonk in Fort Worth, Billy Bob Barnett was looking to pump life in Irving's tax base with his unique concept of a live-music Mecca and more.

Its location was planned for Las Colinas, next to the sleek, nearly complete, Irving Convention Center.

Irving citizens already have voted to spend $200 million city dollars on design and construction. The Las Colinas Group partnership has pledged to spend $50 million of its own.

It's the same proposal made to the City of Dallas five years ago. But that was dead on arrival when elected officials determined Barnett and his partner, Bill Beuck, didn't have $50 million ready to spend.

So Barnett and Beuck took their concept to Irving, where the City Council — led by Mayor Herb Gears — was less concerned about Billy Bob's financial means or his ability to help put a huge project together.

"Billy Bob's track record includes enough success to get us to where we've gotten today," Gears said.

And where is that project today?

Architectural renderings, designs and construction blueprints are complete. They were paid for with city revenues as outlined in Irving's contract with the Las Colinas Group.

The critical clause in the agreement says city money from the hotel-motel tax may only be spent on items "directly related to the construction costs of the Entertainment Center."

But News 8 has spent the past month poring over records — two years of invoices submitted for payment by the city, tens of thousands of dollars of which have no explanation or supporting documentation and do not appear to be directly related to construction.

Included in the unsupported invoices is a limousine charge incurred by one consultant for $810.

Another consultant billed the city for alcohol and an in-room movie at the Hotel ZaZa in Dallas.

The same consultant billed for alcohol and a $184 meal at Pappas Brothers Steak House and a $138 meal at Del Frisco's, with no supporting explanation.

Another consultant billed Irving $1,100 for a one-night stay at the W Hotel in New York City. Round trip airfare to get to New York for another consultant was nearly $2,000.

Again, all of the expenses were paid for with city tax dollars with no supporting documents as called for in the Development Agreement with the city.

Other consultants taking trips used city money to stay at the Essex House in New York, The Mandarin Oriental in Las Vegas and the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles.

Two consultants hired by the Las Colinas Group commuted to Las Colinas from Las Vegas. One of them, Dave Hanlon, who is paid $20,000 per month, racks up thousands of dollars in travel expenses, yet is unknown to the mayor of Irving.

"He's part of the organization for the Las Colinas Group, is that right?" Gears asked one of his assistants in the room during his interview with News 8.

Hanlon is the chief executive officer of the Las Colinas Group. According to his "Linked-In" Internet biography, Hanlon has spent the past 30 years in the gambling and casino industry — not developing live music venues or restaurants.

The city's person in charge of Entertainment Center expenditures is Irving's Director of Real Estate Management, Brenda McDonald.

"The buck stops with me," McDonald said.

Yet in case after case, McDonald told News 8 she had no idea who many consultants are or what they do when we brought up their names.

Not "Nashville Consulting."

Not "Christians CDC of Dallas."

And not "K.L. Gates."

McDonald does say some invoices submitted to the city are rejected, and if the consultants are being paid it's because they are doing legitimate construction or design work.

Another consultant McDonald is unfamiliar with is named Abay Gezaghn. Gezaghn is paid $2,000 a month.

Others know him better as Billy Bob Barnett's chauffeur.

"Honestly, as a general statement, that's probably not an appropriate expense," McDonald said.

Barnett said Gezaghn is only paid for driving clients and running errands. He said he pays Gezaghn as a chauffeur out of his own pocket.

Barnett's travel expenses also are a mystery. Among them, a $5,200 "meal honoring former house speaker Jim Wright."

Last year, Barnett and Mayor Gears traveled to Austin to discuss "corporate sponsorships" and billed the city more than $1,000 for a two-night stay.

Again, the bills were paid with little or no supporting documentation as required by Irving city policy.

Barnett originally agreed to an interview to discuss expenses and other questions. But when News 8 showed up at his Las Colinas office last week for the interview, Barnett and Beuck were no-shows.

We were told to address our questions to Mayor Gears, who — at the end of our interview — had this to say about the $22 million his city has invested in a project that looks great on paper.

"Yeah, I guess it would surprise me to know if anything had been spent in a way that it shouldn't have been," Gears said. "Those are the kinds of things that we do our best to make sure don't happen."

The contract with the city states the Partnership is supposed to invest at least $1 million of its own money up-front. Both the Mayor and Brenda McDonald said the Las Colinas Group has invested much more than that.

We asked them to provide evidence. They could not.

The Las Colinas Group issued this statement:

"Las Colinas Group and the City of Irving are passionate about bringing world class entertainment options — as well as 2,000 jobs — to North Texas. In pursuit of this objective, not a single penny of public funds has been expended without independent oversight and rigorous financial controls. We are proud of the project, excited to begin construction soon, and believe the facility will positively impact tourism, employment, and economic development in the North Texas region."

E-mail bshipp@wfaa.com

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