Corruption trial for county commissioner underway

March 9, 2011 4:09:57 AM PST
The political corruption trial of Harris County Commissioner Jerry Eversole began Tuesday afternoon. Eversole is accused of trading political favors for bribes. He claims prosecutors are doing nothing more than trying to criminalize his longtime friendship with a local business owner.

Since he was indicted in December, Eversole has said he wanted this day to come as fast as it could, but he didn't repeat that today.

"I can't talk. I really can't talk. I appreciate the offer," said Eversole.

Once inside, government prosecutors told the jury about the case against the 20-year commissioner and his longtime friend, developer Mike Surface. In his opening statement, prosecutor John Pearson said this case is about money and power.

"Commissioner Eversole had the power of public office. What he wanted was the good life," Pearson said. "(Eversole) served himself. He accepted over $100,000 in concealed benefits."

And as Eversole's lawyer Rusty Hardin began making his case to the jury, he said, "This is really about a group of prosecutors from Washington, DC who decided they don't approve of how business is done in Harris County. There will be no evidence in this case... that Jerry Eversole and Mike Surface agreed to commit a crime."

But prosecutors promise there will be evidence of how extensive and expensive the gifts from Surface to Eversole were. Eversole admits Surface gave him airplane tickets, hotel rooms, guns, and cash. At one point turning over a $63,000 check to help Eversole build his Heights home -- a check prosecutors say Surface went to great lengths to conceal.

"We're talking about four checks, three banks, two men, one purpose -- to help Mr. Eversole live the good life," said Pearson.

That check went from bank account to bank account four times before Surface ever turned it over to Eversole, prosectors allege, and they say that is a sign of some sort of intent on the two men's part to hide it from anyone who may be looking for evidence of bribery.

Closely watching this case is the Harris County attorney. The county wants to see the government's case then decide if there is enough evidence to remove Eversole from office.

"We have to be prepared for the removal, for that is there's only one person that has the authority under Texas law to remove Commissioner Eversole and that is Vince Ryan, the county attorney," Harris County Assistant Attorney Terry O'Rourke said. "And it's a very solemn responsibility, and the government is producing evidence, which we've never seen."

Eversole votes on county budget earlier today

Embattled Harris County Commissioner Jerry Eversole voted on a county budget plan just a few hours before opening statements in his corruption trial.

Eversole was sitting in his reserved seat at commissioners court Tuesday morning, but in the afternoon he will sit in a far different seat -- as a defendant in federal court.

That's where the commissioner, who has been elected to office six times, will hear opening statements in his trial on corruption and conspiracy charges. He's accused of taking $100,000 in bribes from his close friend, real estate developer Michael Surface, in exchange for votes that gave multi-million dollar contracts to companies in which Surface had a financial interest.

Eversole today voted on the Harris County budget which includes funding for some of the very same projects federal prosecutors say Eversole pushed for in pay-to-play deals with Surface.

But inside commissioners court this morning that was not an issue anyone wanted to address.

"Particularly because I was named as a witness I can't say anything at all about that," said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.

"The court process is going on down the street, the budget process is on the table. I don't have anything to say about that," said Art Storey, Executive Director of the Harris County Public Infrastructure. "That is a matter that is being decided down the street. I just work here, lady."

Eversole has pleaded not guilty. Michael Surface goes to trial in October.

Eversole's trial is expected to last four to six weeks. If convicted, he faces a maximum of 21 years in prison and $700,000 in fines.

In Focus Reporter Ted Oberg will be covering the trial, but it's a 13 Undercover investigation that opened the floodgates for all of the commissioner's ethics troubles.

Eyewitness News and will be on top of the biggest local corruption trial in years. Stay with us for continuing coverage of the Jerry Eversole trial.