Following the money trail after Ike

February 24, 2010 9:58:55 PM PST
There's more criticism for FEMA. They paid the bills, but did they watch your money closely enough? A 13 Undercover investigation sparked the feds to take a closer look. Wayne Dolcefino is on the hurricane trail. "Submit it in writing, I'll answer in writing. I gotta get back to work," said Chambers County Judge Jimmy Sylvia.

Judge Sylvia has had weeks to answer our questions.

"Look I got a meeting to go to," said Judge Sylvia.

He still hasn't.

Weeks after Hurricane Ike, Garner Environmental was given a $19 million contract to search for bodies and hazardous materials.

Among their very first hurricane workers was Judge Sylvia's son, Jimbo. For his long days in the debris fields, FEMA was being billed $75 an hour and $112 an hour for overtime, even though Jimbo Sylvia's Myspace page claimed he was a full-time pilot.

"It's very suspicious. The circumstances," said KTRK Legal Analyst Joel Androphy.

The hiring was apparently not a secret at the Chambers County Courthouse. But Judge Sylvia did not disclose his potential conflict publicly to taxpayers. Our legal analyst says that could be illegal.

"But when you don't put something down and you don't self-disclose it, it looks like you're hiding something," said Androphy.

Garner's bills were huge. More than $120,000 a day during the height of the cleanup. And Jerry Sparks is the Chambers County auditor who OK'd them, based on these documents created by Garner that lists employees and the hours they worked.

We tried for months to see the original sign-in sheets used to create the billing records.

"Well, I wouldn't say the time limit is that way, but I'll take your word for that," said Sparks.

After our first reports last month, FEMA asked for them, too. And they raise a lot of new questions.

Take December 13, 2008. Garner's bill for that day is more than $32,000. It claims 39 people working, but look at the sign-in sheet. There are only nine names. And none are the same. There are discrepancies on many days.

Garner wouldn't answer our questions about the accuracy of the records or something else we saw - Jimbo Sylvia's very different handwriting on different sign-in sheets.

Garner wrote to us, "Please refrain from further contact of any kind with any Garner employee. You should take care in the manner you choose to comment about Garner's policies and procedures and the Chambers County project, which was completed to both the County and FEMA's satisfaction."

And that's what troubles Congressman Ted Poe - FEMA's refusal to answer our questions on camera.

"FEMA coming across as stonewalling everything. That's nothing new with FEMA," said Rep. Poe.

The hurricane trail has already shown you how public officials, government workers and their friends all made money off Hurricane Ike.

It began with hidden camera video of trucks belonging to Liberty County Judge Phil Fitzgerald. We followed the trail to Lavernia, Texas, and the judge's brother-in-law.

Turns out Judge Fitzgerald and his family was paid up to $1 million. And the guy who got another big Liberty County contract was Winston Sizemore, life-long friend of County Commissioner Lee Groce. Sizemore paid for the commissioner's trip to Las Vegas to be at his wedding.

At the Chambers-Liberty Counties Navigation District, five members of the canal superintendent's family got on the hurricane payroll. Wayne Morris even leased his own equipment to the district for a cleanup of the Lake Anahuac canals in Chambers County.

When we asked Wayne Morris if he understood that some people think it looks bad, he replied, "Well I don't. I did nothing. I mean, I worked."

In the heart of gator country, there's a long list of public officials and their relatives who got on the hurricane payroll. "It looks like a good ol' boy system. It doesn't look good," said Rep. Poe.

"Well, whatever," said Cecil Parker.

Most worked for Cecil Parker. He's the former Mt. Belvieu City Councilman who got the biggest hurricane contract of them all in Chambers County.

When we said to Parker that for him it was a gold mine, Parker replied, "Yeah, it was."

He's a longtime friend and political donor of Judge Jimmy Sylvia.

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

Parker's lawyer says his client is just a hardworking guy who did what FEMA asked, saying, "In short, no one in the government asked for money or favors and no one with the government got any money or favors."

So where will the hurricane trail lead us next?

"Patrick Henry said the liberties of the people will only be secure when the transactions of their rulers are open. That's true now. It was true 200 years ago and it's still true today," said Rep. Poe.

Chambers County officials said they followed the law and FEMA's recommendations every step of the way, and that any suggestion to the contrary is false.