More trouble for Liberty Co. judge

April 11, 2009 6:08:35 AM PDT
All of us paid for the cleanup after Hurricane Ike, and there's growing evidence we paid much more than necessary to clean up the debris in Liberty County. And now an e-mail surfaces which federal investigators probably won't like.

We told you last week the Texas Attorney General had been called in to sort out the mess in Liberty County, and now an e-mail surfaces showing there were early red flags of possible trouble in the county's hurricane cleanup.

"Those pictures correspond with that invoice," said Dennis Odell.

FEMA required every damaged tree limb carted off in Liberty County to be documented with a picture. Load tickets signed by county-hired monitors. Dennis Odell was the county's point man.

His October 28 email uncovered by 13 Undercover could come back to haunt Liberty County taxpayers. Invoices were showing many hurricane debris trucks claimed to be 100% full.

Odell's email read, "There is no such thing as a 100% load."

Odell worried, it could "bite us someday."

Some county monitors may have been pre-filling forms. Numbers, trucks and times could be confused and mixed up. Odell repeated a warning, the "price difference between contractors may cause us grief down the road."

That's because county commissioners decided not to give the low bidder the entire county to clean up, but handpicked their contractors. This was the county judge in early March.

"I really didn't have time to get involved with the debris because I had other things to worry about," said Liberty County Judge Phil Fitzgerald.

Of course, now we know Judge Fitzgerald was very much involved in the debris contracts, leasing, he now admits, up to 16 pieces of equipment on the deal to his brother-in-law's company, hired by contractor, C&C, to handle their daily cleanup operation.

"From a business standpoint, he gave me a better offer than anyone else did," said Bobby Cassity of C&C Lumber.

C&C Lumber was one of those higher bids, more than 50% higher per load than the low bid. Odell says he didn't know of the courthouse connection when he made this suggestion, "It's ultimately in FEMA's hands, but I think we should keep our mouth shut and hope that no one catches these possible concerns."

FEMA did approve the payments, but that was before the revelations about the judge and evidence his relative's company was paid $1 million from the C&C contract. The judge won't tell us what he personally profited.

"You don't rent that many pieces of equipment for four months without making money," said Judge Fitzgerald.

Judge Fitzgerald doesn't see the ethical problem, even though he was in charge of administering the county's hurricane cleanup.

"I really don't. I mean, if I would have...I just, basically no," said Judge Fitzgerald.

Expecting state investigators now, Odell has been trying to get accurate records from the equipment used in the C&C contract. So far, they haven't come. C&C has been paid $3.2 million.

Odell says he didn't know the judge was making money on the hurricane cleanup until our story broke and there's no evidence he did.

You know who helped convince FEMA that the bigger expensive contracts were necessary in Liberty County? We're told it was Judge Fitzgerald. I wonder if he mentioned he was making money on the deal.

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