Look who got a sweet deal in Kemah

February 11, 2011 4:57:36 AM PST
Hundreds of people lost their homes after Hurricane Ike, but now you'll meet the Galveston County judge who got a sweet deal on a bay-front mansion. 13 Undercover investigates another Kemah real estate deal raising eyebrows.

We've been talking the last few nights about desperate hurricane victims who claim Kemah's mayor took advantage of them to get their property for himself, but now, another reason why suspicions in Kemah are so high.

This has been Kemah resident Bryan Sawyer's amazing view of Galveston Bay for 21 years -- that's how long he's had a home on the waterfront in Kemah.

"This was a little kind of fishing community, shrimping community and then the boardwalk came," Sawyer said.

And then came Hurricane Ike.

Sawyer spent $150,000 fixing his own house, so it's kind of hard to blame him for being upset about this -- the bay-front mansion just two doors down; the windows are still boarded up, but not a single repair has been made inside.

"Come on folks. This was two and a half years ago," he said.

We found the front gate wide open, the fountain empty, piles of bricks outside. The trumpeter's only audience -- a couple of rooftop birds.

"When you look at it sitting here two and half years after the storm," we began to tell Sawyer. "It's discouraging. I don't know what else to say," he said.

You know who owns the place? Kemah's top judge does.

"It's 100 percent my fault," Judge Mark Foster said. "And I'm sorry that I've kept it in this condition for this long, but financially, I haven't been able to go in and do anything."

In June, the city of Kemah ordered the demolition of the house if it wasn't fixed in 30 days. that's before Foster bought it.

But since the judge did buy it, Kemah hasn't forced him to clean it up.

"No one has ever came to me and said you know, you need to do something with that house," Foster said. "I know I that I've gotta do something with it and I feel bad the fact that I've left it like that."

In the same city where some folks demolished their homes under threat by the city, others were denied permits to rebuild.

Some people in Kemah wonder if it made a difference that Mark Foster is a longtime friend and sometime business partner to Kemah's mayor, Matt Wiggins.

"Being a judge, a long time ago -- 16 years ago -- I quit thinking about what other people think," Foster said. "I don't know why they would've condemned that house to begin with. There's minor damage."

Before the hurricane, this house on Bay Street was valued at $900,000. After the storm, it was left abandoned by the owner. But after the city moved to condemn it, the bank filed suit against the city and the mayor to stop that and let them fix it up.

The bank's lawyer claimed when their realtor tried to get permits to repair the damage, the mayor offered no help from the city, quoting, "The city inspector would not be returning his call and for that matter, nobody from the city would be returning his call."

The mayor denies he ever impeded the bank from doing anything.

"You never read what it said about you?" we asked Wiggins.

"No," he replied.

The mayor may have never read the lawsuit, but Kemah taxpayers spent more than $40,000 defending it. Just days after the bank's harsh letter to the city, the house was sold to Judge Foster.

"How'd you find out about 705 Bay?" we asked Foster.

"705 Bay was given to me by Matt Wiggins," he replied.

Foster says Wiggins gave him the name of the bank's realtor in case he wanted to call and make an offer, even while the city was setting deadlines to tear it down.

And the judge claims he didn't even know about the bank's lawsuit with the city until we called him.

"I never asked him to help me. I don't know what his intentions were," Foster said. "The reason I bought the house was plain and simple. I'm moving back to Kemah."

"Special favor?" we asked Wiggins.

"No, we have houses all over Kemah that we've not done anything about. We even have people in a trailer that we haven't done anything about," he replied.

Judge Foster bought that house on Bay Street for $258,000, and he admits there's only minimal damage inside.

"Fixing damage is probably minimal. I would guess $50,000 to $100,000, minimum," Foster said.

"You will have a $350,000 bay house that's worth about $900,000," we told Foster.

"Sure, I hope. That's the reason I bought it," he said.

"That's a really sweet deal."

"That's a sweet deal, yeah. I like it. That's the reason I bought it."

"Do you think there was something funny about that?" we asked Sawyer.

"I don't know how there couldn't be," he replied.

On Friday, a story that the millions of people who go to Kemah will want to hear. Have some places been allowed to reopen for business after the storm without the proper safety permits?