Port of Astoria Commission President Frank Spence gave the Port’s executive director a vote of confidence a day after the agency was hit with a $4 million loss in a breach of contract lawsuit over the Astoria Riverwalk Inn.
“I support Jim Knight wholeheartedly,” Spence said Friday. “I have no doubts whatsoever on his capability.”
“Obviously, I’m disappointed, and I’m going to call an executive session to meet with our attorneys and see what our next steps will be.”
Other Port commissioners either did not respond to requests for comment or declined to speak about the verdict, citing instructions from Port counsel.
Param Hotel Corp. sued the Port after failed attempts to acquire the remaining seven years on the lease of indebted former hotel operator Brad Smithart. A jury ruled Thursday that the Port breached a contract with Param and made false representations to the Portland company. A separate fraud claim against Knight was dismissed.
Spence levelled the most blame at former Port Commissioner Stephen Fulton. After the Port voted in June 2015 to have staff transfer Smithart’s lease to Param, Fulton was called by Chester Trabucco, a local developer interested in taking on the Riverwalk Inn lease. Trabucco and William Orr, Fulton’s brother-in-law, were among several suitors for the hotel after the Port terminated Smithart’s lease in July 2015.
Their company, Astoria Hospitality Ventures, was chosen several months later by the Port Commission to operate the hotel on a short-term basis. Hospitality Ventures later received a two-year contract to October 2018. Clatsop County Circuit Court Judge Dawn McIntosh has yet to rule on a claim by Param for specific performance of a contract, a legal remedy that could award Param the lease the company had sought on the Riverwalk Inn.
Fulton publicly recused himself during Port Commission discussions on the Riverwalk Inn. But during the trial, Colin Hunter, Param’s attorney, pointed out text messages between Fulton and Trabucco, some of which had been deleted from one of Fulton’s phones. Fulton claimed he had changed phones, and that some of the text messages he was ordered to turn over in the lawsuit might have been deleted by a software glitch.
“What was brought out was the actions of Steve Fulton continuously working behind the scenes, even after he had recused himself from official meetings, to try and get Chester Trabucco and William Orr the contract,” Spence said, adding he doesn’t think Knight fully understood what was going on behind the scenes.
Fulton, who lost re-election in May, did not respond to a request for comment.
Spence has added an agenda item to Tuesday’s Port Commission meeting about an extension for Knight, whose contract will soon expire. A divided Port Commission voted 3-2 in December to grant Knight a 2.5 percent pay increase. Fulton and Commissioner Bill Hunsinger, both frequent critics of Knight, voted against the raise.