13 Undercover

Are your tax dollars paying for a family affair?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The federal government is investigating hurricane contracts during Ike cleanup in Liberty and Chambers County after what 13 Undercover discovered. It's a trail littered with public officials and government workers who found ways to profit from a Gulf Coast disaster.

"We had to build that back side levee," Wayne Morris said.

Morris needs a four-wheel drive pickup truck to maneuver these muddy fields. We're smack dab in the middle of Chambers County rice country, watching repairs on the levees - canals fed by the 5,000 acre Lake Anahuac.

Why should you care? Because you're paying $11 million to fix it, thanks to Hurricane Ike.

Head into Anahuac, east of Houston, and you'll pass the Family Dollar. Just down the road, you'll find a family affair here inside the government-run Chambers-Liberty Counties Navigation District.

"Chambers County only has 30,000 people in the entire county. To not hire people who are related, you almost have to go out of the county, especially right after the hurricane," said Billy Combs, Navigation District Board Member.

"All of the transactions, all of the contracts, all of the deals, no matter who gets them, must be transparent. There lies the problem," said U.S. Representative Ted Poe.

Take canal superintendent Wayne Morris. You know how many of his kinfolk got hurricane money from the district? Six total - Two brothers, one sister, one nephew, his wife, and don't forget his son.

"They were there when we needed someone and at the time, they weren't working, and yeah, we did. But there wasn't no conflict there, that I know of," Morris said.

His 57-year-old wife was hired as unarmed night watchman, making as much as $1,600 a week.

"I know that we had equipment that needed to be watched. She watched it and nothing was stolen. She done her job," said Terry Halton, Navigation District Board Member.

The Morris family might have worked longer hours after Hurricane Ike than just about anyone else. Just look at the time sheets. In one two-week period, Wayne Morris billed 220 hours. That's 20-hour days for six days in a row.

"We had a job to do and we got it done," said Morris.

Navigation district records show the Morris family was paid $180,000 for hurricane work. In fact, the payroll is chock full of relatives. There's work for the general manager's husband, and an $11,000 summer job for her daughter.

It's rare to find a government agency that doesn't have a nepotism rule, but this is Chambers County.

To save money, the Navigation district decided to do much of the cleanup by itself, even leasing heavy equipment from its own superintendent.

"Wayne (Morris) came to us about leasing equipment and we knew about the relatives being hired, but we have no policy that prevents that," said Halton.

Invoices show Wayne Morris was paid $20,000, even $30,000 a week to lease just six pieces of his own farm equipment. There were no bids.

Look at this bill. In one nine-day period, every single piece of equipment worked 102 hours. That one bill was more than $32,000. In less than three months, Wayne Morris was paid $147,000 for his equipment.

"I think we were very frugal with people's money," said Halton.

"Just because it's cheaper is not a defense," said KTRK Legal Analyst Joel Androphy.

"I think FEMA was satisfied with what we done," said Halton. "We hadn't heard any complaints."

"If the public has a right to bid on a contract, everyone has a right to bid. Number one, it's fair. It gets the government the best price. And it gives everyone an opportunity to compete," Androphy said.

When we asked Wayne Morris if he understood that some people think it looks bad, he replied, "Well I don't. I did nothing. I mean, I worked."

FEMA did what it's done for months with us -- refuse to provide anyone on camera to answer our questions, instead releasing a written response, "At this time FEMA is unable to comment on the Chamber-Liberty Navigation District."

Rep. Poe said, "FEMA is the disaster. They don't cooperate. They don't cooperate a lot of times with elected officials, with the press, members of Congress because they don't want to."

"I'll tell you this, Mr. Dolcefino, if there was anything that was done that violated any rules, we will take care of it in house and we will deal with it here. It won't be done in the public. It won't be done on a TV show."

Wednesday night on the hurricane trail, we look at new records that are raising new questions.

(Copyright ©2014 KTRK-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved.)

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