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Did Builder's Clout Trap Couple In Dream Home?

Chart: Texas Homebuilder Donations

Bob and Jane Cull bought the home of their dreams in Texas. It was built by one of the most powerful and politically connected homebuilders in the country — and it was defective. Thus began a 13-year odyssey that would teach them some unhappy lessons about money, power and influence.

Back in the early 1990s, the Culls decided they wanted to build the 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 a new development in the suburbs of Dallas.

"We actually spent about five years looking all around," Jane says. "We found a perfect lot. It was just a perfect place to call home."

So Bob and Jane Cull bought from one of the state's largest homebuilders. And before they knew it, they were playing with their grandchildren in their new living room with a tall ceiling that looked out over hole No. 2. And they lived happily ever after. For about six weeks.

"There were windows that you could not raise," Bob says, and "a roof support in the attic that fell away."

The Culls' new home was undergoing "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.

'You Win, And You Win And You Still Haven't Won'

"It's overwhelming," Jane says. "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."

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 into 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, they were confident about the evidence.

"The only person in 12 years who has heard every bit of testimony, read all the depositions, the engineering reports and sat face-to-face with all parties for three days is the arbitrator," Bob Cull says.

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.

Political Ties In High Places

Seventy-six-year-old Bob Perry is one of Texas' most successful homebuilders. For the last two decades, he has 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.

"They overturn two lower courts and vacate an arbitration system — all for their biggest donor," argues Andrew Wheat.

Wheat is the research director of Texans for Public Justice, which tracks campaign contributions in Texas. Wheat 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.

"They all took money," Wheat says. "Not a single member of that court should have sat and heard a case involving Bob Perry Homes."

Six years after winning in arbitration, the Culls' $800,000 award was thrown out. In a 5-4 decision, the Court disallowed arbitration and sent the case back to the courts.

Anthony Holm, spokesperson for Bob Perry, defends the Texas Supreme Court's ruling and the justices' decision to sit and hear the case. He says that if the judges recused themselves every time a case involving a big donor was before them, they'd almost never hold court.

"Every single major law firm in Texas are huge donors to the Texas Supreme Court — and every other judicial candidate at every level in this state," Holm says.

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, critics said. It's an allegation Perry's spokesperson dismisses.

"I mean, it's simply absurd," Holm says. "The situation is tragic and no one wants to be here, but all we have sought from day one is our day in court."

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 Jane and Bob Cull's amazement, inspectors hired by their builder are once again inside their house, drilling holes through their foundation. One arbitration and a half-dozen court rulings later, they are starting the process all over again.

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Wade Goodwyn
Wade Goodwyn is an NPR National Desk Correspondent covering Texas and the surrounding states.
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