13 Undercover investigates deals in Liberty Co.

June 3, 2009 5:22:42 AM PDT
A Las Vegas trip was paid for by the winner of a lucrative hurricane cleanup contract. Does friendship affect contracts in Liberty County? They say what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Well, not necessarily.

"When's the last time you were in Vegas?" we asked Liberty County Commissioner Lee Groce.

"February," he answered.

It was a wedding party, but the commissioner couldn't remember the hotel he stayed in less than four months ago.

"I don't remember. We were at Harrah's, we were at Golden Nugget, we stayed several places," said Groce.

When we asked Groce if he had a problem showing us receipts for travel and hotel records, Groce replied, "I have no receipts. I just don't."

That's because Commissioner Groce didn't have to pay for the trip. The groom picked up the tab. His name is Winston Sizemore.

"He's a lifelong friend of mine. He has been a friend of mine for my whole life and we would have went anywhere to get him married," said Groce.

We asked about the trip to the Strip because Sizemore's company got an $8 million contract to clean up Hurricane Ike debris in Liberty County last year. He was hand picked by Commissioner Lee Groce.

"It's not against the law, Mr. Dolcefino. Statute says this is my personal and had nothing to do with me being a commissioner," said Groce.

Under state law, pre-existing friendships can make gifts to public officials legal, but did the commissioner's relationship with Sizemore affect his choice of hurricane contractors?

FEMA questioned the higher cost of hauling debris, but approved the payments to Coastal Row, and the other company Groce chose, C & C Construction. Now the feds are taking a closer look.

"They were both capable. They were both local. They weren't storm chasers. The majority of that money stayed in Liberty County and surrounding areas," said Groce.

Coastal Row's chief was the commissioner's self-proclaimed lifelong friend. Of course most taxpayers wouldn't have known that. It raises new questions about the way Liberty County doled out millions.

"We did not talk and I did not talk to any vendor prior to the contract about anything about the contract," said Groce.

We asked because cell phone records obtained by 13 Undercover show calls on the morning of September 19 between Groce and Winston Sizemore. Then the county judge. Then the bidder from C & C, and then the judge again.

There was another call to Sizemore later that day. The next day, more calls with Coastal Row and C & C.

"I had no contact with the judge, period," said Groce.

On Saturday, September 20, the bids were received.

"I don't remember if I had contact with any of them once the bid was sealed," said Groce.

However, phone records show that the day before the vote, while the bids were sealed, there was another call to Sizemore, right after the county judge. Then Sizemore again. There were four calls with Sizemore's number on it that day.

When I asked Groce if he talked to them about getting the contract, he replied, "No, sir."

After the vote, there was another long call to Sizemore.

Maybe it's all just a coincidence, but our legal analyst says investigators like to see phone records.

"The government loves phone records to put people together at a certain place and time," said KTRK Legal Analyst Joel Androphy.

So now we know Commissioner Groce gave one big contract to his lifelong friend and the other contract to a company that then subcontracted its work to Mark Miksch, the brother-in-law of the county judge.

We told you in March the county judge profited from trucks he leased to his brother-in-law's company. He won't say how much he made, but Groce says he didn't know the judge was making money on the deal until the media told him.

"There's not a written contract. It's just a verbal. Take it and use it and do what you want to," said Liberty County Judge Phil Fitzgerald.

Judge Fitzgerald has denied he influenced the contractors chosen, saying, "I didn't manipulate a contract."

At the Cleveland Livestock Show in April, records show Judge Fitzgerald and Commissioner Groce had the winning bid on a steer for $2,700. Auction records show the bill was paid by Winston Sizemore.

"You may be used to the big city concept. The problem with that concept out here is everybody knows everybody," said Fitzgerald.

The commissioner tells us his name was put on the winning steer bid as a joke by his friend, Mr. Sizemore. Wednesday night at 10pm, we'll meet the family of a county judge. Think the welcome mat is out?

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