13 Undercover exclusive on federal probe

October 30, 2008 8:35:55 PM PDT
The federal grand jury probe of possible corruption in Harris County has a new chapter. 13 Undercover has learned the feds are looking at the Westpark toll road. If getting government contracts in Harris County was a poker game, developers Andy Schatte and Mike Surface sure have a knack for getting the winning hand. Maybe it's just the luck of the draw, or maybe it's the way the deck is being dealt.

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

New federal grand jury subpoenas ask for records on several controversial real estate deals, but it's not news to 13 Undercover viewers. We exposed the controversial deals in our winning hand investigation early this year. Eli Sasson was on the losing hand of one of the deals. Eli Sasson was the losing bidder on the latest real estate deal on Antoine.

"Let me tell you something -- justice needs to be done."

The county now admits what we told months ago -- that taxpayers may have paid millions more than we had because of the way we financed the projects. And the winning hands often went to Schatte, Surface, or their business associates. But tonight we've learned it's not just land deals under scrutiny. The feds now want records detailing work done on the Westpark Tollway.

In March 2001 county commissioners hired AECOM for management services on the construction of tollway projects, starting with Westpark. The first contract was for about $1 million. Since then the engineering company has made $23.3 million from taxpayers.

But the feds are focused on a company that got a piece of AECOM's deal -- Comprehensive Universal Services. Sources say they were involved in making sure the materials used in the roadway met specs. Who was one of the managers? Andy Schatte. Another winning hand

The toll road has no records detailing how CUS was hired by AECOM, or how much they were paid. We've also learned the federal grand jury wants to see records surrounding the vote to put Mike Surface as head of the Harris County Sports Corporation. Surface was in charge while the Reliant Stadium project was built.

Schatte and Surface both deny federal charges they corrupted a city official. But they have connections to a number of other public officials. State Senator John Whitmire says the FBI has questioned him. He did legal work for Schatte.

Schatte remains on the campaign finance committee of Commissioner El Franco Lee. One of the real estate deals under scrutiny was managed by Lee's office.

Mike Surface used to be the head of the county's building department. He made his first deal with Harris County months later. The lawyer on the deal? Commissioner Eversole's son.

Surface and Schatte also helped pay off campaign loans for County Attorney Mike Stafford. Stafford still has a picture in his office of Surface, Schatte, Eversole and Leroy Hermes. The architecture firm Hermes founded got design work on many of the real estate deals under scrutiny. And the FBI is investigating the design work Hermes did on the Heights home of Commissioner Eversole. He also did work on Sheriff Tommy Thomas' ranch. Both men say he paid. Both won't say how much.

A lawyer for Mike Surface called the latest subpoenas a fishing expedition, and only Commissioner Eversole is a known target, by his own admission. Other public officials deny wrongdoing.

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