Former politician was paid big bucks for Ike cleanup

January 22, 2010 9:24:28 PM PST
A Houston congressman wants a federal audit of the $60 million spent by Chambers County in the wake of Hurricane Ike. 13 Undercover has already sparked a federal corruption probe in Liberty County and now the FBI is asking questions about Chambers County, too.

It's a tattered symbol of what life is like in Oak Island these days.

"It's kind of hard sometimes," said resident Brianna Shiver.

Sixteen months after Hurricane Ike swept across Trinity Bay, little Dewayn still shares a FEMA trailer with his mother Brianna and three other relatives.

"Everything is gone. All of our neighbors, family, friends, gone," said Brianna.

Soon they will move into a home donated by singer Neil Diamond, but Dewayn is one of the very few kids still left here.

"All of our friends that had kids, they are gone," Brianna said.

Brianna and her neighbors share the same horrible story. Hurricane Ike was an unparalleled disaster in Chambers County. But not for one guy.

We said to Cecil Parker, "For you, it was a gold mine."

He replied, "Yeah, it was."

That's because no one was paid more to handle the cleanup after the storm by Chambers County than Cecil Parker. How much? More than $22 million.

"Just luck and I went after every job I could get," said Parker. "I was in the right spot at the right time."

Cecil Parker is also a politician, a former Mt. Belvieu city councilman, and a friend of Chambers County Judge Jimmy Sylvia. In rural Texas counties, there is no politician more powerful.

Wayne said, "Describe your relationship with Cecil Parker."

Judge Sylvia said, "As I told you before, if you got any questions, submit them in writing and I'll be glad to try to answer them in writing."

We're still waiting.

"Looks like the good old boy system. It doesn't look good," said Congressman Ted Poe.

"Well, whatever," said Parker.

After Hurricane Rita, the decision was made to have cleanup contracts in place before the next big storm. Chambers County had been negotiating with a big national firm, Ceres, when Hurricane Ike roared ashore.

But using emergency powers, Judge Sylvia directed a small piece of the cleanup go to a local as long as they could match the price. It was just three square miles of debris, or a few weeks work.

"It was peanuts when it started," said Parker.

The county never publicly announced the job. The county engineer met with three locals who wanted to work at a meeting on or about October 1, 2008. Cecil Parker was one of them.

Two days later, Judge Sylvia had already inked the contract with Cecil Parker. Don't bother looking at the courthouse for a record of the vote by Chambers County commissioners. You won't find one.

"All decisions should be transparent, should be public," said Congressman Poe.

Eventually, Ceres was cut out of the cleanup, and with FEMA's blessing, Cecil Parker was put in charge of clearing all the remaining debris fields. A Parker e-mail from December 2008 acknowledges the money at stake. It reads in part, "The judge asked me to spread the wealth with others in the county."

The records we've seen reveal that at least six Chambers County officials had relatives who ended up on Cecil Parker's payroll. Some made money leasing equipment for the cleanup.

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

By law, the county's independent watchdog should be Chambers County Auditor Jerry Sparks. Here's how it's supposed to work: A department head verifies the bills submitted to the county. There's a place for their signature. You'll notice it's blank. The bills don't even fully identify the owners or the registration of the vehicles taxpayers were paying for.

State law requires the auditor "will not be personally interested in a contract with the county." We found Sparks' son on Cecil Parker's hurricane payroll. Sparks says that was no conflict.

"No and certainly no comment further than that," said Sparks.

Congressman Poe said, "FEMA should come in and say, look, if you are going to use local people, we need some accountability on who these people are and what their relationship is with thepeople making decisions."

Judge Sylvia was also given a list of possible sites to choose for a FEMA temporary housing site. But the county could find no records explaining why this particular site, 90 acres on Poskey Road, was the one chosen. You know who owns it? Cecil Parker.

"Man, the stars were aligned. That's it," said Parker.

The lease on Poskey Road wasn't signed until two months after the hurricane. Parker was paid $10,000 a month in rent for a year. That's $120,000. But the site was never used.

"This person was getting money when the land wasn't even being used," said Congressman Poe.

Ten months after the hurricane was over, Chambers County was still giving Cecil Parker huge checks. And he was one of Judge Sylvia's largest political contributors.

Parker called his $1,600 donation a small one.

"I think he's doing a good job," said Parker about Judge Sylvia.

Of course in Oak Island, they are just glad the debris is gone and new homes being built, whoever made the money.

"The money was going somewhere. As long as we can keep it local, that's even better," said resident Rusty Dearman.

And Cecil Parker doesn't seem to care that some folks question it.

All Chambers County officials we've talked to deny any wrongdoing, but none we asked would sit down for an interview with us and we asked for months.

On Friday night on Eyewitness News at 10pm, we shine the spotlight on FEMA. You'll know why some folks got rich off the disaster with your money.

The FBI asked us to pass along their phone number for folks who may information on the Chambers County investigation. That number is 713-693-5000.