Former Liberty Co. judge, others indicted

January 28, 2011 7:28:20 PM PST
A former Liberty County Judge and Commissioner and a local businessman have all been indicted in a hurricane fraud scheme, US Attorney John M. Bales announced on Friday. John "Phil" Fitzgerald, 51, of Liberty, Texas, Herman "Lee" Groce, 62, of Cleveland, Texas, and Mark Wayne Miksch, 52, of LaVernia, Texas, were named in a 25-count indictment returned by a federal grand jury on Jan. 26, 2011. The defendants have been summoned and will make their initial appearances on Feb. 1, 2011 before U.S. Magistrate Judge Earl S. Hines.


The indictment alleges that following Hurricane Ike's landfall on Sep. 13, 2008, Fitzgerald, the Liberty County Judge, and Groce, the Liberty County Precinct 2 Commissioner, used their elected positions to fraudulently influence and award debris removal contracts to a company in return for sub-contracts being awarded to Fitzgerald's brother-in-law and businessman, Miksch. As part of the scheme, Fitzgerald is alleged to have received approximately $611,000 in kickbacks disguised as legitimate business transactions.

Additionally, Fitzgerald is charged with the unauthorized use of a 155 kilowatt generator which was purchased by and for the benefit of Liberty County and then reimbursed by FEMA. Instead, Fitzgerald is alleged to have commandeered and used the generator to power Fitzpak, a convenience store and gas station in Moss Hill, which Fitzgerald owned and operated.

As a result of the conspiracy, approximately $3,269,456 in debris removal contracts were fraudulently awarded by Fitzgerald and Groce in violation of state and federal laws, according to Bales.

Fitzgerald and Groce both lost their bids for re-election in November 2010, concluding their positions with Liberty County on December 31, 2010.

A criminal probe was sparked after a joint investigation by 13 Undercover and the Cleveland Advocate. Our hidden cameras showed trucks owned by the then-county judge were used in the Hurricane Ike cleanup in his own county. We have worked on this story in cooperation with The Cleveland Advocate, our Houston Community Newspaper partner.

Fitzgerald's attorney Joseph Hawthorn issued a statement which read in part: "Judge Fitzgerald has fully cooperated with the investigation, has nothing to hide and has committed no crime. ... Had the Government allowed us the opportunity to present our side of the story before seeking an indictment, we are confident there would be no indictment. However, because of their refusal, we will now have to have a trial in this case, at considerable expense to Judge Fitzgerald and the taxpayers, in order for us to tell our side of the story."

If convicted, the defendants face up to five years in federal prison for the conspiracy charge. Additional charges range from five to 30 years in federal prison.