Wealthy Texas couple taking advantage of Washington taxpayers?

VASHON, Wash. -- Is a wealthy Texas couple taking advantage of Washington taxpayers? Are they using an historic home on Vashon Island for what's become their own private summer get-away?

A KOMO 4 Problem Solver investigation found taxpayers spent nearly $500,000 for the Mukai Farm and Garden and now the state wonders what the rest of us are getting in return.

Chain link, barbed wire, and 6-foot high fences with "no trespassing" signs make the point doubly clear: The Mukai Farm and Garden on Vashon Island looks anything but welcoming.

The Problem Solvers called the phone number listed on the single, water-damaged sign out front only to hear an operator saying the call cannot be completed. And a knock on the neighboring caretaker's door also got us no answer, even though a family member told us he was home. But when the Problem Solvers contacted the Board President of the group that owns the home - Island Landmarks - Mary Matthews was at her historic Texas estate. And she immediately offered to fly to Seattle and show us the historic landmark herself.

The Mukai Farm & Garden is an historic home and Japanese garden that everyone agrees tells an incredible story. Japanese immigrants -- the Mukai family -- overcame incredible odds to become successful entrepreneurs, developing a revolutionary method of cold-packing strawberries and turning 1930's Vashon Island into the center of the strawberry-producing world. "This site is about the fulfillment of the American dream," Matthews said.

In 1999, Island Landmarks got $460,000 of taxpayer money from the county, state and federal government, using $300,000 of that to buy the Mukai property. But those grants came with a caveat: The property has to be preserved and accessible to the public. "We in Washington state don't give away money to give away money for the sake of it," said Washington State Historic Preservation Officer Allyson Brooks. "We want the public to gain something."

Brooks toured the Mukai property in December.

"I was appalled, and I was dismayed," she said. "And I got very concerned about the use of public funds."

She says it looked like someone had been living there: "Well, there's mouthwash, luggage tags, TV sets, bottles of wine in the refrigerator, all the appearance of somebody having the property for personal use."

Brooks added, "the state cannot grant money for private use." Brooks fired off a letter to Matthews ordering Island Landmarks to "cease and desist" and move her personal belongings out.

We asked Matthews about that when she showed us through the property, but her answers kept changing. We asked if the state was wrong in thinking that she was living there part time? Matthews: "Well they, they were wrong. We never lived here." Instead, she told us she stayed in the historic fruit processing plant next door which she and her husband privately own. The fruit plant has no kitchen and no shower.

When we looked inside the Mukai home, we found boots on the floor in the front bedroom and we asked about a television and VCR there as well.

Matthews replied: "We had Lori Matsukawa do a video for us, and so we show that on there."

In the kitchen, we opened the refrigerator and asked about the wine and food inside.

Matthews responds, "Well, I mean again, I was here live... using the kitchen, because I didn't have a kitchen over there so when I was here I used the kitchen."

Then days later, Matthews e-mailed the Problem Solvers explaining, "From June to Nov. 20 I was on site...I slept at Mukai, used the shower... at Mukai, and used the kitchen at Mukai." She justified it saying she was "volunteering."

But while Matthews was living there, did the public get to visit? A group of Vashon Islanders trying to take over the property called "Friends of Mukai" says no.

"It got almost half a million dollars of public funding," says Lynn Greiner of the group. "It was never intended to be a private residence."

She added, "There were a lot of expectations that they would create exhibits, get the public involved, open it up and very little of that has happened."

Island Landmarks Vice-President and Matthews' husband Nelson Happy also flew out for our visit. He lives and works as an attorney in New York.

"We've had thousands of people through here over the last 13 years," says Happy, "and we've had many many events here. It's always been open to the public."

So the Problem Solvers asked for proof. Island Landmarks' 70 page response showed over the past 12 years, only 16 documented 'events'. Most occurred in 2001, with one or two a year after that -- and nothing over the past three years. The main educational exhibit is a tri-fold report put together by a 5th grader. And as for visitors? The last guest register they gave us was from 2009 and had just 8 signatures.

"Well, there is public access," Happy said. "There's no definition of exactly what it is - it's reasonable, whatever reasonable access is."

There is also the matter of Island Landmark's non-profit status. Island Landmarks hasn't filed a tax return since 1999. The IRS revoked the organization's non-profit, or 501(c)3 tax-exempt status, in 2010. Happy says they have re-applied for it, but that is not currently documented on the IRS website.

The other caveat of those public grants is that the home and garden are to be preserved and maintained.

"I think we've done a good job of maintaining it, keeping it intact, improving it and doing what's necessary to stabilize it," Happy said.

But Mukai is showing signs of age. Outside doors are weathered with paint peeling or almost entirely worn away. The leaking roof is covered with sheets of plastic. And there are numerous signs of unfinished work from downspouts pulling away to a paint job abandoned with door and window trim half painted. Inside the home there are signs of water damage and missing window and door trim.

Matthews and Happy say the projects are unfinished because winter rains set in and they had to stop. Greiner from Friends of Mukai says it's time for someone else to take over: "It's fenced off and neglected and dilapidated."

Nelson and Matthews agree that someone else should take over but they want it to be the National Park Service, though they could offer no proof that they've begun the process. A National Park Service rescue is something preservation experts say is extremely unlikely, particularly in this period of tight budgets.

In the meantime the State Attorney General is warning Island Landmarks to make immediate changes or the state will take legal action to protect the public interest.