Questions remain about $60 million spent during Ike

January 22, 2010 9:24:05 PM PST
13 Undercover is back on the hurricane trail and there are 60 million reasons why. That's how much of your tax money was spent in Chambers County in the wake of Hurricane Ike. And the questions about how it was spent are not going away. In the heart of gator country just east of Houston, Chambers County commissioners begin their meeting with a prayer - for me.

"We pray for Mr. Dolcefino to day, bless him and honor him," said a commissioner in the meeting.

Quite neighborly, until you ask the tough questions.

"Submit your questions in writing," said Chambers County Judge Jimmy Sylvia.

"I'm asking you the question now face to face," we said.

"I'm busy. I have a meeting to go to," said Judge Silva as he drove away.

Questions about the way Chambers County spent nearly $60 million of your dollars in the wake of Hurricane Ike.

"You know, I'm busy and I don't have time to answer questions," said Judge Sylvia.

What a difference 16 months makes.

Back in September 2008, Hurricane Ike had just slammed ashore, cutting a deadly path through Bolivar right through Chambers County. Dead animals, mounds of debris, bodies. I was there with the very first search teams, reporting on the daily cries for help from the Chambers County judge.

"We're step children to Harris County, Galveston County, Jefferson County and understandably so because we're so small," said Judge Sylvia back then.

But when we wanted to talk about the hurricane now?

"I'm just going to give a no comment at this point," said Chambers County Auditor Jerry Sparks.

And to the people who got huge hurricane contracts?

"Look you're just trying a smear campaign," said hurricane contractor Cecil Parker.

"It doesn't look good and it doesn't look good to the taxpayers," Congressman Ted Poe.

Garner Environmental was paid nearly $19 million to find hazardous materials in the millions of yards of debris and to search for bodies. It was nasty work.

Their bills to Chambers County are nasty, too. During the height of the storm cleanup, more than $120,000 a day just for labor. Chambers County paid the bills. FEMA reimbursed the money - your money. We looked at the bills.

"Right now, there seems to be not much accountability and certainly no transparency in where the money is going," said Congressman Poe.

Chambers County did get a document from the company detailing employees and hours worked, but the county didn't ask for sign in sheets, doesn't know whether the dozens of employees claimed actually worked, or even have Social Security numbers. FEMA was billed more than $100 an hour for some of them.

"I don't have that information," said Sparks.

How do taxpayers know they got what they paid for? We're still asking.

When I asked Sparks why two months had passed since I asked for the information and still didn't have it, Sparks replied, "I wouldn't say that time limit is that way, but I'll have to take your word for it."

We recognized one name on Garner's hurricane payroll. He's on the very first list. A HazMat technician. Jimbo Sylvia. Last name sound familiar? He's the 26-year-old son of the Chambers County judge who inked the Garner contract.

When I asked Judge Sylvia if he got his son on the payroll of Garner, the judge replied, "Submit your questions in writing."

"I'm asking you the questions face to face," we replied.

"I've got a meeting to go to," he said.

Congressman Ted Poe said, "Of course it doesn't look good."

The months after the hurricane must have been exhausting ones for the judge's son. Records turned in by Garner Environmental show Jimbo Sylvia usually worked 11 hours a day out in those debris fields, six days a week, from six in the morning until five o'clock in the afternoon.

FEMA was then billed $45 an hour for his first eight hours, $67.50 for the overtime hours. That's more than $3,000 a week.

"You do think the public has a right to know?" we asked Judge Sylvia.

"Sure," he said.

"The way this money was handed out?" we asked.

"Submit it in writing and I'll answer in writing," he said. "I've got ot get back to work."

The HazMat contractor apparently liked Jimbo's work. Within two months, Jimbo was promoted to a HazMat specialist. A supervisor. FEMA was billed $75.00 an hour, $112 for for overtime.

On his MySpace page, Jimbo doesn't mention the hurricane job, but he does talk of being a full-time pilot for the Brock Group, a company out of Beaumont.

The obvious question is: How did Jimbo Sylvia find the time to do both?

Sylvia's son would not share his flight logs with 13 Undercover so we could answer that question for sure, but records now obtained from the FAA raise the stakes.

The records show a Brock plane flying on many of the days Sylvia was being paid to be in the debris field. November 18, for instance. Sylvia is paid to be in the debris fields all day, but the plane is on a trip to the Tri-Cities airport in Tennessee.

"People question the integrity of a system like that," said Congressman Poe.

Judge Sylvia has denied wrongdoing, but it's clear a hurricane that was a disaster for a lot of folks in Chambers County was a gold mine for others.

On Thursday night on Eyewitness News at 10pm, you'll meet the guy who struck it rich from his neighbors' disaster and he has a powerful friend too.


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