Who got the winning hand?

March 12, 2008 9:15:05 PM PDT
Two years ago, a Houston businessman cried foul. But did anyone in Harris County government listen? We have new revelations about the land deals made with your tax money. We've been on top of an emerging FBI investigation for weeks now, and now, one of at least nine Harris County real estate deals the FBI is interested in because of who got the winning hand.

To get the winning hand, it helps to have the luck of the draw. Maybe that's what Michael Surface has.

In January of 2005, one of his corporations buys an old H-E-B store on Antoine. The appraised value -- $1. 2 million.

Two months later, Harris County announces it's looking for a big building to replace Commissioner Lee's Annex A in the same neighborhood that Michael Surface now owned his old H-E-B.

Maybe it was just a lucky hand for Mr. Surface. But years earlier, he was the guy in charge of Harris County's building department.

"I never heard the name Mr. Surface unless you mentioned it," said businessman Eli Sasson.

Sasson didn't know Surface was involved when asked to compete for the multi-million dollar real estate deal. He wanted to renovate a building at 8230 Antoine to meet the county's needs.

The county had specific square footage requirements. So Sasson says he went to measure the old H-E-B.

"I measured the lengths and widths and I found out the building is smaller. There's now way it would fit," said Sasson. "A few days later, we got the letter and they want a smaller building."

And now, the old H-E-B building fit the requirement.

"The roadblocks all along the way," said Sasson

The final proposal made it mandatory that the front door of the building chosen had to be no more than 450 feet from a bus stop. Sasson had never measured, but a consultant hired by the county apparently had.

"He told me, 'I don't think you would fit because I checked it. You need to check it from the bus station to the door entrance, not to the property'," said Sasson.

Lo and behold, the distance between Sasson's front door and that bus stop was 485 feet.

"You know what. I made them change the bus stop," said Sasson.

It didn't matter. Sasson would lose.

"A lot of frustration, almost to tears," he said.

All the chips he had thrown into the game were gone.

"I complained to every single official in town, trying to take action," said Sasson.

And these emails prove he complained.

"I was really stunned to get your phone calls," he told us.

Surface never made an appearance in the game. But tax records show he sold the building and land to a corporation called HC5815 for $2.2 million. That corporation, in turn, got the winning hand months later. The head of that corporation was David Blumhardt from Dallas, who we've learned got the winning hand in at least nine Harris County real estate deals. His local representative on the Antoine project was the guy whose name we found on a worn out real estate sign -- Jason G. Hall, Weston Partners, Ltd.

Where have I heard that name before?

Jason Hall used to work for Michael Surface at Harris County. Now, his real estate operation is located in Michael Surface's offices.

When Jason Hall worked for the county, one of the projects he evaluated was 2525 Murworth. It's now the home of Children's Protective Services, part of a $35 million county real estate deal developed by Michael Surface just months after he left county government.

Sasson never knew these things about the other players in the game.

"I heard it the first time from you," he said.

Until December, Michael Surface was chairman of the powerful Sports Corporation, overseeing the Reliant Stadium complex in Commissioner Lee's precinct.

In January, Surface was indicted on charges he conspired to bribe a city official, wire fraud, lying to the FBI. So was another big developer, Andy Schatte. They both pled not guilty.

"Now you're putting the puzzles together," said Sasson. "Justice needs to be done."

County employees say the H-E-B deal was the lowest price deal, but it's also a question of ethics. Did someone get to peek at the cards? As we continue to deal the cards, you'll see only a few folks seem to get all the winning hands. Another exclusive Thursday night at 10pm.

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