Judge allegedly profited from Ike

March 31, 2009 9:38:01 PM PDT
We first told you about what was happening in Liberty County a couple of weeks ago. Now 13 Undercover has learned a company owned by the family of the Liberty County judge made about $1 million from a Hurricane Ike debris removal contract.A battle is underway inside the Liberty County courthouse. The man who inherited the mess calls it mayhem.

"I want to continue or develop a reputation for Liberty County for being honest, being straight forward, and being transparent," said Liberty County Attorney Wesley Hinch.

Hinch is now seeking an outside investigation after we uncovered evidence the county judge and his brother-in-law had made money off the couny's $21 million Hurricane Ike cleanup.

"I believe an investigation will be conducted and if a criminal case needs to be prosecuted, it will be prosecuted," said Hinch.

Records for many of the vehicles used by one of the vendors, C & C, are traced back to Judge Phil Fitzgerald and his family. The call for transparency apparently hasn't reached the judge, who won't say how much he profited from his county's disaster.

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

"I'm just a country boy so my words are not the best in the world," said C & C owner Bobby Cassity.

Cassity now tells the same story Judge Fitzgerald tells.

"After I was awarded the contract, I did have a talk with the county judge," said Cassity.

That led Cassity to the judge's brother-in-law, who ended up running the daily debris cleanup for C & C while Cassity recovered from a hearing loss. He says money, not politics, led him to the judge's family.

"From a business standpoint, he gave me a better offer than the other ones did," said Cassity.

Campaign records show Cassity was one of the largest contributors to Judge Fitzgerald's political campaign.

"I've gave campaign contributions to people I might not have even voted for," said Cassity.

C & C has been paid $3.2 million for its debris contract. Cassity says he paid MWM, owned by the judge's brother-in-law, about $1 million. But the Liberty County contractor says he doesn't know how much of that money the judge was paid for the equipment he provided.

When asked if the public has a right to know how much the judge pocketed, Hinch replied, "I think the public has a right to know where tax dollars are going. I think they know as much as I do at this point. That's why this matter is under review."

But the Liberty County contractor says he does not know how much money the judge himself was paid for the equipment he provided.

"No, because that's none of my business," said Cassity.

The fireworks have triggered bizarre fights in the courthouse.

In the middle of Commissioners Court last week, the embattled county judge questioned the county auditor who complied with our legal request to inspect records in the first place. The exchange was captured on the courtroom video system.

"What is this? Some type of inquisition? I'm going to answer public information requests. I don't care who's involved in it. I'm going to answer it," said the auditor.

To which Fitzgerald replied, "Well, I appreciate that."

"Do you think that's appropriate?" we asked Hinch.

"I think that's been a matter of some speculation," he said. "It's a matter of some speculation."

"You're not going to say?"

"No."

The county judge also faces a judicial conduct commission investigation after he signed a criminal dismissal for a close friend. The dismissal of that case and at least four others have now been voided by County Court at Law Judge Don Taylor.

"There's a perception the good old boys are in control here in Liberty," we said to Hinch.

"I think the goal is to ensure that the public feels there is objectivity in the analysis of both these issues," he answered.

Now the county judge wants a state district criminal judge in Liberty to resign after he suggested Fitzgerald broke criminal law.

"The issues related to your investigation have consumed a large part of my office's time over the last couple weeks," said Hinch.

The FBI is investigating, but we've learned the Liberty County district attorney has known about the Ike cleanup story as early as January but there's no evidence he pursued it until after the media found out.

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