Tales of desperation from Kemah

February 10, 2011 2:58:28 AM PST
Mayors always have their critics, but some victims of Hurricane Ike say Kemah's mayor used the disaster to get their property for himself.

Did the mayor's duty to help hurricane victims take a back seat to his own pocket? That's the debate underway in Kemah.

Adolpho Saavedra lived in West Kemah 18 years. He had raised his son there. Then came Hurricane Ike.

The mail is still delivered to 30 West Eighth, but the house is now demolished, just a slab, not the way Saavedra wanted it to work out.

"I work in construction for 18 years," he said. "I work in renovation long time."

So after the storm, Saavedra's family wanted to rebuild.

"Mostly the inside was just half of the walls that need to be replaced which was pretty much like everywhere around this area," said his son, Adolpho Saavedra Jr.

The construction company he worked for was willing to do it for cost. The city's building department said no. Then they got nasty, saying repairs would cost four times as much as the contractor claimed.

Then came a potential buyer -- the city's newly elected mayor, Matt Wiggins.

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

"He had talked to our neighbors, 'cause they had just sold their own house, and he was wondering if we were interested in selling our house," Saavedra, Jr. said.

Wiggins claims the Saavedras were already selling when he came along, but it's no secret the city of Kemah had long envisioned something else there. It's the heart of why there is so much suspicion in West Kemah and it's no secret the mayor has been buying up some of the houses there for years.

The Saavedras say they had been offered $165,000 for their house before the storm came but sold it last July to the mayor for $20,000 in cash. The mayor agreed to pay off their $65,000 mortgage.

"They've gotten every dime that they were ever going to get out of the property, they've already received," Wiggins said.

"The reason we sold it to him, we felt he was a legit guy considering he was the mayor of Kemah, he would take care of business like a legit person," Saavedra Jr. said.

But when we first talked to the Saavedras in November, the mayor had not paid the mortgage off in five months. The bank was threatening.

"We're not going nowhere with him, no phone calls, messages never get turned back, you know -- nothing," Saavedra Jr. said.

The mayor says he's waiting for Saavedras to sign legal papers.

"I paid Adolpho Saavedra his equity in the property, and I have been trying to pay off property ever since," Wiggins said.

The Saavedras say they only got the papers from the mayor after we started investigating.

And what about their next-door neighbors, the Lara family? They traded their house to the mayor for one that was miles away from the bay after the city warned their Kemah house could be condemned, demolished. They now think the mayor ripped them off.

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

Then the mayor made this startling offer to the Lara family during our on-camera interview:

"If they don't like the deal, they can have their house back," Wiggins said. "I'll trade them back."

But why wasn't the Lara house torn down a year and a half later, just as the city threatened?

"I ask myself, why is this house still standing and why is he reconstructing it?" Jose Lara said through a translator.

The Laras were told their house would have to be elevated to be rebuilt because it was seriously damaged and in the flood plain.

"Every one-story house in this town that got flooded with more than two feet of water should have been torn down," Mayor Wiggins said.

The city had long maintained that all of West Kemah was all in the flood plain. But look at an elevation certificate the mayor turned in when he got his permit to repair hurricane damage for the house he bought from the Laras. It says the house is 12.7 feet above sea level -- just two inches above the flood plain.

The mayor said elevation doesn't matter because he was flood-proofing anyway and because he was turning the house into a business, so he didn't have to demolish it. But he got those city permits to rebuild based on an elevation certificate that even the building official thought was wrong.

"Didn't anyone say that can't be right?" we asked the city's building official, Jack Fryday.

"Yea, I did," he replied.

Fryday says he couldn't challenge that professional survey seal or the professional estimates on damages on the Saavedra house.

"It's like Schultz," said Fryday. He's the German prison guard in that old series, Hogan's Heroes.

"I hear no evil and I see no evil," said Schultz.

After a complaint was filed with the state, the elevation was checked again. Guess what? It was wrong. It was lowered by four feet.

The mayor had no comment.

Thursday at 10pm, Kemah's judge. Why are some suspicious of his sweet deal on a bayfront mansion after the storm?