Controversial real estate deals in Kemah

February 9, 2011 7:35:30 AM PST
13 Undercover is asking the tough questions as the FBI gets a growing number of complaints about what's going on in the town of Kemah. 13 Undercover is back on the hurricane trail.

We've been exposing possible public corruption, waste and fraud. This time, it's real estate deals in Kemah.

From Galveston Bay, SkyEye 13 heads toward Kemah. This is Houston's playground, and we're here to show you some of the millions of dollars in property the mayor of Kemah already personally owns.

"I'm a real estate person. That's what I do," Mayor Matt Wiggins said.

He even owns a piece of that famous Boardwalk. This, after all, is a playground with dollar signs.

"There's a lot of people here who are just trying to make a profit," longtime Kemah resident Bryan Sawyer said.

This is the place some people are looking to make a profit -- an old neighborhood called West Kemah, right along Highway 146 in the shadow of the Boardwalk. Developers have had their eye on it for potentially lucrative commercial development. That's why the mayor has been buying up property there.

But one of the key pieces of property in West Kemah was owned by Maria and Jose Lara, and they had rejected Matt Wiggins' offers before Hurricane Ike came along. West Kemah, after all, was home.

"This is where our heart is," Maria Lara said through a translator. "Our family has been here for 16 years."

Now her heart is broken.

"I can tell when someone is cussing me in Spanish," Wiggins said.

"I feel that Matt Wiggins was not an honest man," Maria Lara said through a translator. "He wasn't straight with us. He played us crooked."

You know who owns the Lara house now? The mayor does.

"Yes, I would like to know what's going on," Maria Lara said through the translator.

In the fall of 2008, Hurricane Ike happened. The Laras wanted to rebuild.

In February, the city imposed a deadline on all seriously damaged homes, including the Laras', threatening to have their house demolished and removed unless they brought the house up to code.

So they submitted a building permit request. But notice the city's approval line is blank. City of Kemah building official Jack Fryday didn't sign the permit but went to City Council to recommend the permit be approved.

But a motion was made to table the vote. You know who made it? Matt Wiggins, who at the time, was still a city councilman.

Longtime resident Brian Sawyer has a long held dim view of Mr. Wiggins.

"It's phenomenally unethical, at the absolute best," Sawyer said.

Wiggins said he just didn't believe the house could be fixed properly for the price quoted and he was just trying to help the Laras because the rest of council was going to deny the permit.

The mayor says he had disclosed his past interest in the Lara property.

"I disclosed it previously," Wiggins said.

"You disclosed it at council?" we asked.


We looked at the minutes. No disclosure was there.

"Every piece of property that I had ever solicited, people on council knew when we voted," Wiggins said.

There was no public record of that either.

And a funny thing happened just weeks after Matt Wiggins made that motion. The city building official tried to work a deal with the Laras.

"I knew that Mr. Wiggins did want to buy the property, and I knew they really didn't want to sell the property, because in my opinion, they didn't want to leave West Kemah," Fryday said.

The Laras and the mayor talked about a trade of their house for a new one just blocks away the mayor would build on a lot.

"He offered the land, he offered to build the house high just like the way the city wanted," Maria Lara said.

Jose Lara had been very sick -- a lung transplant -- so the prospect of a new house from the mayor was a deal they wanted, a chance to stay in West Kemah.

That deal fell through, the new house never built.

"The estimate that I got on building what they wanted didn't fit what their property was worth," Wiggins said.

In August 2009, the Lara house was declared unsafe. The Laras were threatened with $2,000 per day fine if they didn't tear it down or fix it up.

That's when they agreed to leave Kemah, trading their house for yet another house, but this one was miles away from the boats and the water. But it was another trade with Matt Wiggins.

"They got the better end of the deal big time," Wiggins said.

"I feel it. I feel it. He took advantage of the situation," Jose Lara said through a translator.

The Laras say it's hard to keep the faith after all that's happened to them. But in Kemah, a lot of folks have complained the city didn't help them as much it could have.

"I feel really sorry for some of these people, I really do," Fryday said.

"Some people lost their houses, not because of the hurricane, because they didn't know how to play the system like some other guys did," we told Fryday.

"That's correct," he replied. "If you don't know how to play the game, you're going to lose the game; it's football, baseball, life, whatever."

During our interview the mayor suddenly offered to trade the Laras their house back, but our investigation just begins with their house.