Houston airports executive does double duty promoting Norwegian town to Houstonians
Saba Abashawl’s job for the city of Houston is to promote the Bayou City to the rest of the world — to people in places like Stavanger, Norway, an oil-and-port city that wants to be Scandinavia’s answer to Houston.
But that’s not her only job. She has another one on the side: Promoting the city of Stavanger to the powerful in Houston. Abashawl, an executive in charge of international economic development for the Houston Airport System, also works for Stavanger’s local economic development agency as its “Houston office.”
Drawing a paycheck to promote Houston to Stavanger while also working to promote Stavanger to Houston seems like a can’t-lose setup — but it could also present a potential conflict of interest.
The Houston Airport System — an arm of the Houston city government — has spent thousands of dollars to send Abashawl to Stavanger on business, public records show, and those records suggest she was involved in getting Houston Mayor Bill White to travel to Stavanger last year for an oil-and-gas conference there. If her two jobs have areas of overlap, it could call into question whether such expenses are really for the benefit of Houston or her bosses in Norway.
“Why can’t the city in Norway find someone who can fill this position in Houston other than a city employee?” asked Brian Schrag, executive secretary at the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics at Indiana University. Even if the arrangement presents no apparent conflict or ethics snafu, he added, “it seems as if they are trying to keep a back channel open for conversations they don’t have up front.”
Officials in Houston said her work for Stavanger did not overlap with her Houston job, and that there was no conflict of interest. Abashawl said her responsibilities to the Houston Airport System are her priority and that “nothing interferes with those duties.”
“I have never contacted the mayor of Houston on behalf of Stavanger and they have never asked me to,” she wrote in an e-mailed response to questions from Texas Watchdog. “They don’t need me to contact the mayor of Houston. I would not put myself, or the City of Houston, in any situations that were unfavorable. I do not deal with the City of Houston on Stavanger’s behalf. I would never have accepted this client if it involved work that would have been a conflict with my current role for the City of Houston and the Houston Airport System.”