State Emergency-Leave Rules Tightened

Comptroller will now verify all applications

Attorney General Ken Paxton is one of several state officials who've bent the emergency-leave rules. (Photo by John Anderson)

What's the worst way to get rid of a scandal at a state agency? Claim it's not a scandal, then tighten the rules to stop the non-scandal from ever happening again. On June 1, Gov. Greg Abbott and Comptroller Glenn Hegar sent a memo to state agency heads informing them they will be tightening up the rules about emergency leave – most specifically, that it no longer be used as under-the-table severance or settlement pay for former employees.

Emergency leave is intended to assist state employees under extraordinary circumstances. Its core purpose is to give staff time off with pay in the case of a death in their direct family. However, state law does allow administrative heads to grant emergency leave when there is "good cause" – i.e., some personal issue on a par with the loss of a loved one. Who would possibly abuse that system? Well, apparently Attorney Gen­er­al Ken Paxton. And Agriculture Commis­sion­er Sid Miller. And Land Commissioner George P. Bush.

The change comes after months of allegations revolving around multiple agencies, starting when The Dallas Morning News reported in April that Paxton's office was still paying senior staff full salaries months after they left the agency. The situation worsened with the May release of a 2014 agreement between the Teacher Retirement System of Texas and former Assistant General Coun­sel Tina Carnes. The DMN reported that it formally established that Carnes would be placed on emergency leave for six months, on full pay, even though she was allowed to look for work elsewhere in that time – including with other state agencies. It then turned out that she was one of seven TRS staffers who received similar deals, and the Houston Chronicle reported Bush had offered similar settlements during the mass purge of longtime General Land Office employees that happened soon after he took over in 2015.

Under the new policy, all emergency leave applications will be verified by the Comp­trol­ler's office, under Hegar, a notorious proceduralist. This, however, is nowhere near the end of the issue. The state Senate Finance Com­mittee has already held initial hearings on the scandal, with Chair Jane Nelson pledging to crack down on abuses next legislative session. Similarly, on the day of the rule change, House Speaker Joe Straus sent a letter to House General Investigating and Ethics Committee Chair John Kuempel, instructing him to add fixing emergency leave to the list of interim charges.

There's still also the possibility of criminal action: Democratic group the Lone Star Project sent letters to the Texas Rangers, the State Auditor's Office, and the Travis County District Attorney, requesting investigations into potential malfeasance at the Attorney General's Office, the GLO, TRS, the Department of Agriculture, and the Water Development Board. Questioning why state agencies have handed out millions of dollars to ex-employees, Lone Star's executive director Matt Angle wrote, "The intentional misuse of state funds violates both the spirit and the letter of the emergency leave provision."

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Glenn Hegar, emergency leave, Greg Abbott, Ken Paxton, George P. Bush, Teacher Retirement System of Texas, General Land Office

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