More evidence county officials profited from Ike disaster

January 22, 2010 9:21:25 PM PST
Millions of dollars have been spent for recovery following Hurricane Ike, and over the past few nights, we've been exposing the public officials whose families profited from the hurricane in Liberty and Chambers counties. But there's a lot of profit in disasters and 13 Undercover's Wayne Dolcefino is watching out for your tax money.

You'll find rows of excavators and tractors in the 13-acre Nelson Equipment yard on the hill in Mt. Belvieu, but lots of iron in the yard they say is not good news.

"Our economy is in bad shape and we are feeling the pinch big time," Al Nelson, owner of Nelson Equipment.

When Hurricane Ike left millions of yards of debris strewn across Chambers County, Nelson said he was ready to help FEMA clean it up.

"Everybody know we're here and we're local," said Nelson.

The company e-mailed Chambers County Judge Jimmy Sylvia, saying, "We need the work and would love to be a part of this operation."

Judge Sylvia directed them to his long time friend, Cecil Parker. By then the former Mt. Belvieu City Councilman had the contract to run the cleanup. Parker would eventually be paid $22 million. "Sharing the wealth" apparently didn't mean sharing it with Nelson.

"Here I am in the equipment business and I don't have a single piece out there," said Nelson.

In a lawsuit, Nelson Equipment claims Cecil Parker made sure their equipment could not be rented for the hurricane cleanup.

"He would tell contractor or whoever had the equipment rented from us that if you don't get it out of here, you're gone too. So they were bringing it back," said Nelson.

When we asked Cecil Parker if every local person got the same opportunity, Parker replied, "The local people I felt I could trust that would do a good job."

Parker denies the allegations in the lawsuit, but the two men have a history. Parker wanted to be a Chambers County Commissioner, but he lost to Nelson's brother.

"I just got to the point where I wasn't going to take it anymore," said Nelson.

The lawsuit will play out in court, but Nelson clearly knows about the equipment rental business and says on the Ike cleanup, taxpayers were taken to the cleaners.

"It was insane. As a taxpayer, I was very aggravated," said Nelson.

Take an excavator.

"Our book rate on that particular machine and we got it during good economic times all day long is $6,500 dollars a month," said Nelson.

FEMA agreed to pay $7,200 a week. That's more than four times higher.

"I've heard over the years the government paying $200 dollars for a hammer for the military, you hear it, you don't see it. Boy I was seeing it out here," said Nelson. "I can see our government throwing tons of money away."

Another big hurricane cleanup contract in Chambers County went to Garner Environmental. They were searching the debris for hazardous materials. The labor bills during the height of the cleanup were more than $120,000 a day.

Here's one technician's paycheck for a week - $780. FEMA was paying Garner for that very same employee $560 dollars a day. That's more than $3,000 a week.

Public officials and their relatives ended up making at least some of the money. We found the county judge's son on one payroll. The county auditor's son, too.

Equipment rentals flipped like land deals. The local justice of the peace was being paid to judge and be in the debris fields with his equipment at the same time.

"I don't think citizens would like it that at all to find that elected officials should profit off disaster," said Congressman Ted Poe.

Nelson added, "It makes you want to question what's going on."

Even Chambers County Sheriff Joe LaRive profited from the hurricane. FEMA records show he was often on Garner's payroll. The sheriff claims he would work 12 hours for taxpayers and the next 12 for Garner. Sometimes 36 hours in a row. Exhausting.

When we first called the sheriff to see how he could do it, he told us his hurricane work was "none of our business." He wouldn't talk on camera, but in his office, the sheriff recorded our conversation. We got the tape.

"There have been several times during that, that time that I would work 48 hours and then go home and go to bed," said Sheriff LaRive on the audiotape.

In the days after the storm, Chambers County commissioners didn't have the time to meet to vote on hurricane contracts, but they did have time to vote to reimburse every elected official $2,000 dollars for their expenses. But Chambers County has no records justifying what the reimbursement was for.

"I think that's morally wrong, maybe legally wrong too," said Congressman Poe.

FEMA says what it paid in Chambers County is consistent with what it's paid in other disasters. Perhaps this investigation will open some federal eyes.

If you have information on possible corruption on the hurricane trail in Chambers, Liberty or surrounding counties, please call the FBI at 713-693-5000 or the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General at 713-212-4300.

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