John “Phil” Fitzgerald, 51, a Liberty County judge for 4 years and Herman “Lee” Groce, 62, a Liberty County precinct commissioner for 24 years, were named in a 25-count indictment handed down by a federal grand jury on Jan. 26. Fitzgerald’s brother-in-law, Mark Wayne Miksch, 52, was also charged in the conspiracy.
The indictment charges the men with fraud, kickbacks, bribery and conspiracy, in connection with a fraudulent kickback scheme, using FEMA emergency relief funds obtained by the county after the Sept. 13 2008 Hurricane Ike disaster.
The indictments charge that Fitzgerald and Croce used their political influence to award an inflated $3.2 million debris removal contract to a local business, C & C Lumber, with the understanding that C & C would subcontract approximately $1.6 million of the work to Miksch. From the monies received by Miksch, $611,000 was paid to Fitzgerald in kickbacks, disguised to appear as a legitimate business transactions.
Croce claimed to “audit” the C & C bills for reimbursement by the county, and both Croce and Fitzgerald approved them.
Fitzgerald is also accused of taking a FEMA generator at a critical time when the area had no power, and use it to power his gas station and convenience store in Moss Hill, when most other area businesses were shut down. While others were temporarily out of business, he was able to profit from the disaster.
Joseph C. Hawthorn, an attorney for Fitzgerald released a statement which read, “Judge Fitzgerald has fully cooperated with the investigation, has nothing to hide and has committed no crime. … Had the Government allowed us the opportunity to present our side of the story before seeking an indictment, we are confident there would be no indictment. However, because of their refusal, we will now have to have a trial in this case, at considerable expense to Judge Fitzgerald and the taxpayers, in order for us to tell our side of the story.”
Both Fitzgerald and Croce lost their bids for re-election in November, as part of a near sweep by Republicans taking over Liberty County government.
If convicted, the defendants face up to five years in federal prison for the conspiracy charge and from five to 30 years in federal prison for the additional charges.