The Harris County deal spider web

February 28, 2008 6:48:33 AM PST
Are some Harris County officials too close to developers, indicted for public corruption, to investigate huge real estate deals? We've learned several Harris County real estate deals are now under scrutiny, but who can you trust at Harris County to find out if there was hanky panky involved?

The feds have played their latest hand in an ongoing corruption investigation.

Developers Michael Surface and Andy Schatte were indicted in a Houston City Hall corruption case. They proclaim their innocence.

What will be the next card played?

Both men have close ties to Harris County government already facing a season of scandals.

"I can almost smell the county building from here," said taxpayer advocate Bob Lemer.

This week we've detailed the questions surrounding 2525 Murworth, the county building being leased for up to $35 million. Former county building official Michael Surface got the deal only months after he left county government to become a private developer.

"That's repulsive, unbelievable that somebody could do that," said taxpayer watchdog Bob Lemur.

We've detailed evidence the process may have been tainted by potential conflicts.

The guy avoiding us was one of the county's real estate employees evaluating the Murworth deal. He was hired when Michael Surface was the county's top building official, but we discovered he worked before that for BSL Golf, owned by Surface business partner Andrew Schattee.

Now he's running a corporation out of office space at Keystone, a company owned by Michael Surface.

We also reported Commissioner Jerry Eversole's son made money on the deal as a legal advisor to Surface fresh out of law school. Eversole abstained from the vote. Lance Eversole is now a lawyer for SMG, the vendor chosen by the sports corporation to run Reliant Park. Surface was chairman of the corporation until late December.

I asked Harris County Judge Ed Emmett who does the investigation?

"Well that's the interesting thing, we're trying to sort out," he replied.

Harris County attorney Mike Stafford is being asked to conduct the investigation, but does Stafford have a conflict?

"The county attorney's should recuse himself," said ethics watchdog Fred Lewis.

The architecture firm involved in the Murworth project was Hermes Architects. Look at Mike Stafford's newest campaign finance report. The campaign treasurer for the committee, Friends of Mike Stafford is Leroy Hermes, the founder of Hermes Architects.

"Surprise, just because of the timing," Judge Emmett said.

Stafford goes way back with Mr. Hermes. Hermes gave Stafford a big loan when he unsuccessfully ran for district attorney.

You know who else was part of that big loan? Michael Surface.

"For the county attorney to have relationships with two of the major players involved is ridiculous," Lewis said.

Andy Schattee kicked in his share. It was $25,000 each. The men forgave the loan when Stafford lost the race.

That's a lot of chips.

Stafford has refused to talk about his relationships with 13 Undercover. And now the county judge is drawing fire for launching the probe in the first place.

"The county judge does not have unilateral authority to launch an investigation," said Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee. "There are five court members."

County Commissioner El Franco Lee wasn't at commissioner's court when the Murworth deal was voted on, but the engineering firm he used to run did have a history with Keystone outside Harris County. That's a company run by Surface and Schatte.

"There might have been one or two occasions when my firm has been an engineering consultant or done some civil or survey work, but I don't recall," he said.

In fact Schatte is still on El Franco Lee's campaign finance committee.

"He's been a supporter of many years," Lee said.

Even after his indictment on public corruption charges.

I asked Lee if he saw that as trouble.

"I see that as an issue, but it's not an issue that touched me at all," he replied.

"It shows an indifference to the seriousness of the corruption allegations," Lewis said.

"It will be like that until people get sick enough to throw the bums out," Lemer said.

We'll continue to turn over the cards detailing these Harris County real estate deals because it's your money. Are taxpayers getting the winning hand? Stay tuned.

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