SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
Now the story of a couple in Texas who bought the home of their dreams for their retirement. It was built by one of the most powerful and politically connected homebuilders in the country and it proved to be defective. NPR's Wade Goodwyn joins us. Good morning, Wade.
WADE GOODWYN: Good morning, Scott.
SIMON: And lay the story out for us, please.
GOODWYN: This is a story about what can happen to you in Texas if you buy a new home with serious foundation or construction problems. That happened to this couple and in the process of trying to get things fixed, they learned just how powerful homebuilders are in this state. Their builder had the ability to file appeal after appeal through the state court system until the case wound up in the Texas Supreme Court.
And eventually this case becomes the catalyst for the same builder and his allies in the legislature to create an entirely new state agency and a new process that gives even greater legal protection to homebuilders.
SIMON: Now, homebuilders, not homebuyers.
GOODWYN: Right, homebuilders.
SIMON: All right. Back to the couple in Texas.
GOODWYN: Back in the early 1990s, Bob and Jane Cull decided they wanted to build a home where they'd retire and live out the remainder of their days. Although they didn't play, they wanted a lot on a golf course in some new development in the suburbs of Dallas.
Ms. JANE CULL: We actually spent about five years looking all around, and we found a perfect lot. And it was just a perfect place to call home.
GOODWYN: So the Culls bought from one of the state's largest homebuilders, and before they knew it, they were playing with their grandkids in their new tall-ceilinged living room that looked out over hole number two. And they lived happily ever after - for about six weeks.
Mr. BOB CULL: There were windows that you could not raise. There was a roof support in the attic that fell away.
GOODWYN: The Culls' new home was undergoing what is called foundation heave; the clay soil underneath was expanding and contracting like a sponge as it got wet and dried out. The edges of the foundation began lifting and the wooden frame began to bow under the stress.
The Culls had no way of knowing it, but buying this particular lot from this particular builder was the beginning of a 13-year odyssey that would teach them some unhappy lessons about money, power and influence in Texas.
Ms. CULL: It's overwhelming, the process and the system and the years that fly by. The fact that you win and you win and you win and you win and you still haven't won is totally unbelievable.
GOODWYN: After two years of getting nowhere with their builder and warranty company, the Culls hired a structural engineer. To their chagrin, he said their house would either have to be torn down or put up on jacks and piers driven to the bedrock. Either way, it was going to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Culls hired a lawyer, and when their case went to arbitration, the Culls were confident about the evidence.
Mr. CULL: The only person in 12 years who has heard every bit of testimony, read all the depositions, looked at all the engineering reports and sat face-to-face with all parties for three days is the arbitrator.
GOODWYN: The arbitrator sided with the Culls. Perry Homes was ordered to pay $800,000 in damages and retake ownership of the house. The Culls felt triumphant and vindicated. But they were about to discover that if your builder has the resources, binding arbitration isn't necessarily all that binding.
Seventy-six-year-old Bob Perry is one of Texas's most successful homebuilders. For the last two decades he's used his $600 million fortune to fund the Republican Revolution both in Texas and nationally. He helped put George W. Bush into the White House. He was the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth's largest contributor.
In Texas, if you hold a position of legislative, judicial or executive power, a Bob Perry donation is almost certainly in your campaign account. After he lost in arbitration to the Culls, the builder began appealing the award through the state courts. Perry's appeals were rejected at each stop until he got to the Texas Supreme Court, and there he got satisfaction.
Mr. ANDREW WEED (Texans for Public Justice): They take the case and they overturn two lower courts as well as vacate an arbitration decision all for their biggest individual donor.
GOODWYN: Andrew Weed is the research director of Texans for Public Justice, which tracks campaign contributions in Texas. Weed says that since 2006, Bob Perry has contributed more than $21 million to political candidates and judges, including the nine Republican justices who make up the Texas Supreme Court.
Mr. WEED: They all took money. Not a single member of this court should have sat and heard a case involving Bob Perry Homes.
GOODWYN: Six years after winning an arbitration, the Culls' $800,000 award was thrown out in a 5-4 decision. Anthony Holm is a spokesperson for Bob Perry. Holm defends the Texas Supreme Court's ruling and the justices' decision to sit and hear the case. He says that if the judges recuse themselves every time a case involving a big donor was before them, they'd almost never hold court.
Mr. ANTHONY HOLM (Spokesperson, Perry Homes): Every single major law firm in Texas are huge donors to the Texas Supreme Court and almost every other judicial candidate at every level in this state.
GOODWYN: The decision to throw out the arbitration award provoked an outcry from public interest groups and Texas newspapers. The ruling and Perry's money had tarnished the state's highest court with the appearance of impropriety. It's an allegation Perry's spokesperson dismisses.
Mr. HOLM: I mean, it's just simply absurd. The situation is tragic and nobody wants to be here, but all we have sought from day one is our day in court.
GOODWYN: The Culls are trapped. They can't sell the house; it wouldn't pass inspection. They say they're not that kind of people anyway. It's now been 13 years and to Janet and Bob Cull's amazement, inspectors hired by their builder are once again inside their house drilling holes through their foundation. One arbitration and half a dozen court rulings later, they are starting the process all over again.
SIMON: NPR's Wade Goodwyn reporting there. Wade, why did the Supreme Court say they were ruling against the Culls?
GOODWYN: The grounds were that the Culls never should have been allowed to go to arbitration in the first place.
SIMON: Now, they obviously had enough financial resources to match Bob Perry appeal after appeal.
GOODWYN: Yeah. I mean, this was a successful upper-middle-class couple who spent tens of thousands of dollars of their savings on the lawyers and engineers and architects who helped them prove their case. And this ability to fight back, you know, through the years, spurred their developer, Bob Perry, to want to change the way these cases are handled, and he did that.
He had his lawyer and his allies in the legislature write a bill that created a new state agency, a new process that homebuilders have to go through before being allowed to go even to arbitration. And Perry's lawyer was named this new state agency's very first commissioner.
So the fallout in Texas since this agency was created by the builders and their allies in the legislature is the subject of the story tomorrow.
SIMON: On WEEKEND SUNDAY.
GOODWYN: That's right.
SIMON: We'll look forward to it. Thank you, Wade.
GOODWYN: My pleasure.
SIMON: And you can follow the Culls' 13-year legal odyssey on our Web site, NPR.org.
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