Crossing the line on hurricane cleanup?

March 16, 2009 8:26:51 PM PDT
Is a Liberty County judge who crossing the line, finding a way for him and his family to profit from his town's hurricane disaster? 13 Undercover has learned the FBI has launched a corruption investigation into Liberty County's hurricane debris cleanup. We've been investigating the allegations with our colleagues at the Cleveland Advocate newspaper.

Liberty is no stranger to scandal and here we go again. Here comes the judge.

"I think you're crossing a line now, getting into my personal finances," Liberty County Judge Phil Fitzgerald told us.

But Judge Fitzgerald knew why we wanted to talk. Blogs warned we were investigating. Our visit to Liberty was no secret.

"We discussed that Dolcefino was in town and he was discussing the debris pickup," said Liberty County Commissioner Lee Groce.

Debris from Hurricane Ike.

We knew Liberty County got a dose of what Ike did along the coast. We had seen the pictures. And on the southern edge of the big thicket, it was the trees that took the biggest hit; 400,000 cubic yards of debris in just one commissioner's precinct.

"Literally, I don't know of a road you could pass in Liberty County," said Commissioner Groce.

Cleaning it up is expensive. So far, $21 million.

"The taxpayers paid for this disaster," we said.

"Sure," answered Judge Fitzgerald.

And disasters mean big bucks for the folks who clean up the debris. Judge Fitzgerald knows that, too, because he signed the contracts and presides over the meetings where monies are paid out.

He also knows because some of those hurricane bucks went right into his pocket. Yes, 13 Undercover has learned the Liberty County judge has profited from his own town's disaster.

"Do you think you crossed an ethical line because your family benefited from this disaster?" we asked the judge.

"I really don't," he answered. "If I would have...just basically no."

The sworn oath of office Judge Fitzgerald took in January 08 reads, "I will not be, directly or indirectly, intersected in any contract with the county except contracts expressly authorized. So help me God."

So let's talk about the hurricane. One of the companies chosen by Liberty County to clean up the mess was C and C Lumber.

At the intersection of 146 and 105, the county judge owns the neighborhood store in Moss Hill and the property across the street. That's where we saw a truck with the C and C Hurricane Debris logo on it. So we checked the license plate. Guess who owns it? Phil Fitzgerald.

Down the road, we drove into the C and C headquarters. We saw a guy welding on the back of another debris truck. Guess who owns that one? If you said the county judge, you get the prize.

In fact Judge Fitzgerald rented seven of his vehicles for hurricane debris cleanup . And he did it for money. How much did he make? Well, the judge wont exactly say.

"Did you make thousands?" we asked.

"Oh sure," he answered. "You don't rent that many pieces of equipment for four months without making money."

Once our investigation began, the Liberty County attorney had the sheriffs office seal the cabinets with the hurricane records in them until we could see them.

The owner of C and C was a big campaign contributor. But when we checked the required hurricane inventory records, we found another company -- MWM Enterprises out of Lavernia, Texas. The owner is Mark Miksch. Phil Fitzgerald knows him, too.

"You may be used to the big city concept," Judge Fitzgerald said. "I don't know. The problem with that concept out here is everybody knows everybody."

Especially since Mr. Miksch is the judges his brother-in-law.

"On the surface it looks like a brother in law deal," we said to the judge.

We figured the county judge had bothered to read the contract he signed, the one that said Liberty County must have records detailing the experience of its subcontractors, too; credentials. There's no record MWM submitted any.

"He introduced himself as Mark and he was the judge's brother-in-law," said Commissioner Groce.

So how did C and C end up using the county judge's trucks?

"I had told them there was an opportunity to use this equipment," said Judge Fitzgerald.

But there was a catch. The county would only rent his trucks to his brother-in-law, who then suddenly became the daily operations manager of the C and C contract.

"Just a small world?" we asked the commissioner.

"Small world," said Commissioner Groce.

"You think it's the public's business what your brother in law made?" we asked Judge Fitzgerald.

"Not really," he answered.

So far, C and C has billed taxpayers $3.2 million. Maybe its all some of kind stimulus after the storm.

"Them utilizing my equipment allowed them to hire local people and so I think that was a benefit to the community, actually," said Judge Fitzgerald.

"But you made money, too," we said.

"Sure."

An FBI spokeswoman says they can neither confirm or deny the existence of any investigation, but Monday night on Eyewitness News at 10pm, you'll learn it's not just the hurricane that's raising so many eyebrows northeast of Houston.

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