Who built the sheriff's fence?

February 15, 2008 11:30:02 AM PST
We're back at the high priced weekend ranch of Sheriff Tommy Thomas But why is 13 Undercover so interested in the sheriff's fence? And how is it linked to our investigation of the sheriff's inmate education center?

We first showed you that center Wednesday night, where inmates are providing free repairs and construction work for the people who have them in custody.

At the welding shop at the Harris County Sheriff's Department Inmate Education Center, prisoners are taught by community college instructors to fix trailers build, build barbeque pits, work with steel, make cabinets, repair appliances and their labor is free.

Except the general public doesn't get to be a customer. The sheriff's department decides who gets this special deal and the records show most of the customers have badges or are related to someone who does.

I guess that's why they wouldn't make a barbeque pit for us, but Sheriff Tommy Thomas got a pit made for just the cost of the steel. The labor was free.

Instructor Billy Smith says you can save about 40% there on a pit. He also knows about metal fences like the one we saw at the sheriff's 80 acre ranch in Colorado County.

We had asked the sheriff about his fence and the response came from his spokesman.

"To the best of my knowledge, everything related to the fence was constructed on site and it did not involve inmate labor in any way, shape or form."

The sheriff said he used five separate fence contractors, none related to Harris County. But he wouldn't tell us who.

However the community college investigated whether its instructors did work for the sheriff.

"We conducted a thorough investigation which involved interviewing two of our instructors for the program, they both admitted going to the ranch," said HCC Spokesman Terrance Jackson.

One of them was the instructor we met in the inmate center welding shop.

"I've been there, but I didn't work there," Smith said.

I guess it depends on what your definition of work is because HCC says Billy Smith told them about his trip to the ranch.

"One went to the sheriff's ranch to offer advice on what materials he needed," Jackson said.

Nice gesture, the ranch is 73 miles from Houston.

Another welding instructor at the inmate center hung up the phone when I called. But it turns out, according again to HCC, he did work on the sheriff's fence.

"One of them said nothing about compensation, the other admitted he contracted with the sheriff," Jackson told us. "This is the gentleman who said he assisted the sheriff in building the fence."

We've also discovered a lot of the work done by the inmates is for the very instructors paid to teach them. We found 206 jobs.

"I teach these guys how to do body work and paint," said HCC instructor Gerardo Gomez.

Gomez had 87 jobs done for him on at least 15 different cars.

"We are looking at the entire program to improve procedures from front to back so we have a better documentation on who is bringing projects in and what's going out," Jackson said.

By the way, the sheriff told us the gate opener on his ranch fence was bought from a subsidiary of Triple-S Steel Supply Company. Triple-S has had county contracts, including one with the sheriff's office for jail door plates.

Welded we were told by inmates.

In fact Triple-S provides all the steel you'll see in the welding shop, but the sheriff told us Triple-S was not a contractor on his fence. He said the materials were bought from a company in Austin County, but he wouldn't tell us who.

The community college says it wants to make changes so the valuable inmate education program isn't lost. It's clear someone decided to make all this free inmate labor a who you know kind of deal.

As a result of our investigation, the county attorney's office is now making sure what's been happening at the sheriff's department is legal.

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