What Do You Have to Do to Get Fired at the Texas Veterans Commission?

Allegations of bigotry in Texas Veterans Commission don't seem to be sparking change

George H.W. Bush Office Building, home of the Texas Veterans Commission (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Allegra Geller was attending a team lunch in the Texas Veterans Commission's former offices in Chase Park in late July of last year when she made a comment regarding tensions in Swedish politics. She said the director of her agency, James Bracken, thought she was referring to tension over immigration from Muslim countries and reacted angrily.

"For five, 10 minutes, he just ranted about, 'I was over there, I was on the ground, I know what those savages are like, they're not even human, they're filthy animals, all Muslims should be dragged out into the street and shot,'" Geller recounted. She said she was so uncomfortable she wanted to leave the room. "I was so horrified," she said, "I thought, 'Oh my god, he's going to get our agency shut down.'"

Another employee, who declined to be named out of a fear of retaliation, said they overheard Bracken's comments as well. "He has a very loud voice, and he sounded very angry – hateful, really. [He said] that all Muslims needed to be shot," they told us.

At the time, Geller was working as a staff services officer in the Fund for Veterans Assistance – the branch of the Texas Veterans Commission responsible for coordinating funding for veterans' support services across the state. Geller left the agency in January to take a new job. Before leaving, however, she filed a human resources complaint against Bracken detailing the alleged hate speech incident and a range of other issues with his management.

The outburst at the team lunch was memorable, Geller said, but it was far from the only instance in which she says she heard Bracken make demeaning, hateful, or otherwise prejudiced statements in the office. Multiple sources told the Chronicle that Bracken has made disparaging remarks about Democratic political candidates and their voters, and refused to grant accommodation requests in a timely manner. In the human resources complaint, which Geller submitted Jan. 6, she alleged that Bracken frequently spoke to her and other women in the office in a condescending tone and frequently told staff members, "What happens at FVA stays at FVA."

Bracken's conduct, Geller said, left her crying in the bathroom at work and calling in sick to avoid facing him. "I have accepted another position and am leaving TVC solely due to the toxic work environment perpetuated by Jim Bracken," she wrote in the HR complaint. "I have been bullied, demeaned, insulted, and disrespected by him, and my disabilities have been treated as an inconvenience."

The TVC declined to make Bracken available for an interview, or to answer specific questions about the incidents. "The Texas Veterans Commission takes all employee complaints and comments seriously," Public Affairs Officer Jim Halbrook wrote in a statement to the Chronicle. "Privacy considerations limit our ability to share confidential information outside the agency about our employees. The agency is aware of this particular complaint and has conducted a thorough internal investigation in accordance with our human resource policy. Ultimately, TVC has taken the necessary appropriate actions concerning this investigation to ensure that all our employees are following TVC's standards of conduct."

Halbrook confirmed that Bracken is still employed by the TVC, but declined to say whether Bracken has ever faced discipline for his conduct or whether an investigation into his behavior is ongoing. Both Bracken and FVA Operations Manager Craig Towlson sent emails to FVA staff members asking them not to speak to the Chronicle for this story, per emails obtained by the Chronicle.

Bracken, a former U.S. Marine Corps member who completed four overseas deployments, joined the TVC in 2019. At that time, Rob Harriss was working as a staff services officer at the FVA. He said the change in atmosphere at the fund when Bracken joined was "night and day."

"Pretty much any time anyone walked into his office to ask him a question or share information with him, [Bracken] would always respond or retort in an extremely abrasive manner," Harriss said. "And if he wasn't extremely abrasive or pugnacious, he'd be extremely condescending."

Harriss said Bracken was particularly hard on female employees and that he was prone to outbursts of anger. Harriss filed a complaint about Bracken's behavior with Resource Management Director Chip Osbourne and asked to be transferred to another department within the TVC, but after a short investigation, Osborne told Harriss that he could not substantiate his complaints and told him to either go back to work for Bracken or leave the commission altogether. Harriss decided to leave.

In addition to Geller and Harriss, sources told the Chronicle that at least one other person filed a human resources complaint against Bracken and had that complaint dismissed. Geller said she is uncertain of the status of her own complaint. Harriss blamed Bracken's ongoing employment in the face of those complaints on the TVC's leadership at its Austin headquarters.

"They are all retired military officers, so with that comes a sense of entitlement that comes with their positions, their past experiences in leadership ... and unfortunately, in the military, there's a little bit of impunity for improper conduct with midlevel and especially high-ranking military officers," Harriss said. "Naturally, that has carried over to the Veterans Commission."

For some lower-ranking employees, that culture of impunity continues to take a heavy toll. "I'm having a very hard time getting over this," Geller said.

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