The Austin Chronicle

Naked City

Senate Fires at Will

By Michael King, August 24, 2001, News

How long does it take to destroy a 27-year professional career at the Capitol?

Twenty-four hours.

That was all the notice given to Kathy Staat, director of Senate Media Services since 1982 and a Senate employee since 1974, who was fired Aug. 9 along with two colleagues: Barbara Schlief, a Senate photographer since 1979, and Shelley Smith, multimedia coordinator and an employee since 1992. The precise reason for the dismissals of such long-term staffers is mysterious, although Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff told the San Antonio Express-News that it was for poor management, including "apparent harassment, apparent abusive language, and unprofessional language and conduct." According the Aug. 14 report by W. Gardner Selby, Ratliff said a Senate staff internal investigation produced a report documenting "a working environment and a management situation that was just unacceptable. The agency was in a state of disarray, and I think that alone justified the action."

The report Ratliff cited, however, was not given to the fired employees, and they apparently were not directly questioned during its preparation. Senate Secretary Patsy Spaw, who with Chief of Staff Eric Wright informed Staat that she was terminated, has the only copy of the report and told the reporters that as a personnel matter, it will not be made public and is not subject to open records laws. Staat's attorney Karl Bayer, who said his client was willing to waive privacy rights and accept a redacted (names deleted) version of the report, was told that was not possible. According to Bayer, on Aug. 10, Staat was simply told by Wright and Spaw, "You are an at-will employee and are terminated effective today. You have 24 hours to clear out your office." Of Bayer's summary of the conversation, Spaw would say only, "That is not correct -- they were told more than that."

Wright and Spaw declined all comment on the matter, and an aide to Ratliff said that the Lt. Gov. is out of the country and unavailable. The only other official source on the matter, Sen. David Cain, D-Dallas and chair of the Senate Administration Committee, did not respond to our request for comment, but told the Express-News that while he considered Staat and Schlief "personal friends" and thinks "very highly" of their work, he supports the terminations.

As of Chronicle press time, that curious contradiction is about all anybody's saying. Without exception, every single Capitol source contacted by the Chronicle who knew any or all of the three staffers has described their work as highly professional and their working relationships as good. Most say that they were "surprised" or "stunned" to learn about the dismissals, and that they had no inkling there were any problems of the sort described by Ratliff. Austin Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos emphasized that while he does not yet know any details, he had "no idea" that the dismissals were coming. Barrientos said he is trying to find out more "from all sides," particular since the three employees are also his constituents. "I don't know what happened," Barrientos said, "but it seems highly unusual for persons who have been at a job so long to suddenly present such serious problems." Barrientos has been a senator since 1985, and said that in his entire experience, Staat, Schliefer, and Smith were "very professional, and they did their jobs."

Senator Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio said while he had not been aware there were problems and knows no details, he trusts the judgment of Lt. Gov. Ratliff, and Sen. Cain. Wentworth said it was his understanding that the dismissal decision was based on interviews with both current and former media services employees, and was not done "frivolously or thoughtlessly." "I personally like both Kathy and Barbara, although I didn't know Shelley as well," said Wentworth. "But that's not to say that they should keep their jobs." Speaking of Ratliff and Cain, he concluded, "We have to have some faith and belief in the people that we trust to carry out their work."

The fired employees might wish that Wentworth's presumption of trust were a sword that cuts both ways. Staat, Schlief, and Smith were unavailable for comment, but attorney Bayer says his client has "no idea" why she was fired and he's advised her not to speak out until she gets more information. Several sources who know the Senate well -- lobbyists, reporters, and others -- spoke highly of the professionalism of the fired employees, especially longtimers Staat and Schliefer, and no one knew of any problems that would merit instant and peremptory dismissal. James Chapman, the Senate's assistant sergeant-at-arms for the recent session, said while he did not know the fired staffers "close up," they seemed to be well-respected by everyone. "Staat seemed like a den mother for the press corps -- she took people under her wing, got them what they needed, helped them speak to the Senators," said Chapman. "They were always professional and very nonpartisan."

Until someone at the Senate is more forthcoming, all that's left is speculation. One guess making the rounds is that Patsy Spaw, successor to longtime Senate Secretary Betty King (who did not respond to a request for comment), had some unknown problem with these staffers and chose to act quickly. Another rumor is that since the media services office puts together an annual, off-the-record post-session slide show -- a sort of roast -- which both praises and mocks virtually every senator, this year's version might have gone "over the line" on somebody who then retaliated. Such an offense might occasion a tongue-lashing, but instant dismissal after 20 or 25 years of hard and dedicated work?

"Something else is going on," Bayer told the Express-News. "Kathy loves the Senate as an institution. She's not interested in hurting a single senator. But this is truly outrageous. To fire a 27-year employee that's head of the department without her participating in the investigation and without her seeing the report seems awfully suspicious and improper." Indeed.

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