HFD returns gifts from 'Mattress Mack'

July 10, 2009 2:36:49 AM PDT
Nearly two dozen Houston firefighters are returning gifts 'Mattress Mack' gave them. He gave away televisions and mattresses to say thank you to the firefighters who saved his showroom, but it flew in the face of a city law. Jim McIngvale's well-known generosity is causing problems for the Houston Fire Department.

HFD Thursday night is putting all of Mack's gifts on hold.

You may remember he offered to donate $10,000 worth of free furniture to each of the 31 stations that responded to the Gallery Furniture fire.

But with an open arson investigation into the fire, the department tells us it simply cannot accept $310,000 of merchandise from him. It's not the only thing firefighters are saying no to.

Jim McIngvale wanted to show his appreciation to the firefighters who he says, "saved the world's greatest furniture store."

So on July 3 at McIngvale's Gallery Furniture, there was music and food and drinks and prayers. Firefighters even welcomed McIngvale as one of their own.

"The guys thought it would be appropriate that you should be an honorary member of Station 31," said one HFD firefighter to Mattress Mack.

At the firefighter-only barbecue, McIngvale raffled off 11 flat screen televisions and four $3,000 king-size Temperpedic mattresses.

Great gifts, but they came with a warning from Assistant Fire Chief Adrian Trevino.

"If you happen to be lucky enough to win one of the raffle tickets, please give it to one of your family members," said Asst. Chief Trevino.

It was a little odd, but then McIngvale said the same thing before announcing the first winner.

"If you're with HFD, get a family member to claim it. That way we stay happy," said McIngvale.

That's a little wierd. Relaitves of firefighters didn't fight the fire and save Mattress Mack's showroom. But city employees are prohibited from winning anything from a business owner and by putting it in a relative'sname, the fire department thought they'd get around that law.

"We thought, I thought, by giving it to a family member who was not employed by the City of Houston it would be OK," said Asst. Chief Trevino.

It wasn't.

As Chief Phil Boriskie of the Houston Fire Department explained, "There is a law that's black and white and it's very clear on public servants receiving gratuities."

They can't, but even more than that, that huge fire was ruled arson and HFD is trying to figure out who started it.

"We do have an open investigation. The Houston Fire Department in conjunction with the ATF, to the fire that was at Gallery Furniture that was ruled arson. So there's a conflict of interest there," said Asst. Chief Trevino.

But the department didn't think it all the way through before the party and after the party, a city lawyer told the department any firefighter who took a gift could be sent to jail for a year or fined $4,000.

"We are contacting the individuals witht he assistance of Gallery Furniture and having them return the items back to the store," said Asst. Chief Trevino.

Those are not easy calls to make to a group of men and women who no question did a great job fighting the Gallery Furniture fire and just thought they were getting a thank you gift.

"It was my job to instruct them completely and to stop the raffle. I did not convey that information to them completely," Asst. Chief Trevino said.

We're told all the firefighters have been contacted and are returning the prizes.

McIngvale told us it is what it is and we'll move on and that he won't have any more comment.

HFD tried to keep the inspection reports of Gallery Furniture before the fire secret, but after a two month fight, 13 Undercover has them.

They show the Gallery warehouse was inspected about two years before the fire. Major violations were found, but they were fixed. The Gallery showroom hasn't been fully inspected for seven years, but that does not appear unusual.

Arson investigators won't talk about their investigation, but sources say there are no identifiable suspects yet. McIngvale has asked to be cleared in this investigation, but investigators have refused to clear anyone.

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