The Texas General Land Office (GLO) said the Houston Chronicle got it wrong when they claimed his office spent nearly $1 million paying ex-employees in exchange for them not suing over termination.
Texas GLO Director of Communications Bryan Preston took to the agency’s official blog site claiming the Houston Chronicle’s Brian Rosenthal was wrong in its description of how the agency deals with employees who have been let go. “He and his editors evidently believe that they have a gotcha story,” Preston wrote. ‘They do not.”
The Houston Chronicle published a scathing article on Saturday, May 21, claiming Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush “spent nearly $1 million in taxpayer money to entice dozens of people fired by his administration to agree not to sue him or the agency, a practice that may run afoul of a ban on severance pay for state workers.”
“Rosenthal makes two major claims,” Preston wrote. “That the Land Office has spent $1 million to keep former employees from suing, and that this action is somehow illegal. Neither of his claims is true.”
Shortly after Commissioner Bush was elected and sworn into office, he made sweeping changes in agency staff by replacing more than 100 employees, the Houston Chronicle reported. Many of those let go were top aides of outgoing GLO Commissioner Jerry Patterson. It is not uncommon for new chief executives to bring in their own staff for key positions.
The Houston Chronicle claims:
Bush, a first-term Republican, has directed the General Land Office to keep at least 40 people on the payroll for as long as five months after ending their employment, according to an analysis of records obtained by the Houston Chronicle. The ex-staffers did not have to use vacation time and, in fact, continued to accrue more time for as long as they were on the payroll. In return, they agreed in writing not to sue the agency or discuss the deal.
Preston responded that the numbers are way off. “Rosenthal alleges 40 separation agreements, costing $655,000,” Preston wrote, “and then rounds that number up to one million dollars. In what mathematical universe is it acceptable to round up by more than 25% just to land on a headline-grabbing number?”
Preston said the number of separation agreements was actually 26, not 40. He said the cost of these agreements was $383,074.12 in paid salaries, well under the million dollar claim made by the Houston Chronicle. He said the article conflates terminations with voluntary separations and retirements. Further, he said the article conflates emergency leave with separation. He goes on to say the article also conflates salary numbers with vacation time accrued.
“Rosenthal has a habit of taking any number that he cannot readily explain and jumping to the absolute worst conclusion.” Preston claims. “Then he finds an ‘expert,’ tells them his take, and seeks comment. That is not journalism. It is dishonest.”
The “expert” Preston refers to is Austin Democrat political hack, attorney Buck Wood. The Texas Democrat Party political operative made the news on Breitbart Texas in February 2014 when Managing Director Brandon Darby reported Wood’s assertions that Battleground Texas had done nothing criminally wrong in its voter registration activities. Breitbart Texas’ Logan Churchwell reported earlier that week that the Texas Attorney General, then Greg Abbott, had referred the organization’s activities to the Bexar County District Attorney for investigation.
Earlier that year, Wood attempted to jump in the middle of the 2014 Texas Republican Primary Election by filing a lawsuit to try and have Supreme Court candidate Jeff Brown removed from the ballot, Breitbart Texas reported. Brown’s opponent, trial lawyer Joe Pool, Jr. hired the Democrat lawyer to drag his opponent and the Republican Party of Texas into court instead of fighting on the campaign trail. The effort failed and Pool lost the election.
The Houston Chronicle went to the Democrat operative to get his opinion on the GLO’s actions without mentioning his political prejudice. “I can understand the thinking of an agency head who wants to get rid of someone and thinks that this is an easy way to do it, but this is not the way to do it,” Wood told the Houston newspaper. “Keeping someone on the payroll when they’re not coming to work so you can avoid the hassle of a lawsuit is just illegal.” The article describes Wood as “an ethics expert and former deputy state comptroller” only.
To the contrary, Preston claims the separation agreements were not only legal but actually benefit Texas taxpayers. He cites two Texas Attorney General opinions (Opinion No H-786 from February 24, 1976 and Opinion No. H-1186 from June 17, 1978) that allow state executives to set policy for state employees in their respective agencies. “The Land Office established clear and consistent policies as these opinions specify,” Preston claims. “Its actions have been consistent and fair. They have also been wise. Just one frivolous lawsuit could cost the Land Office, and therefore Texas taxpayers, far more than has been used in all of the past year’s separation agreements combined.”
The Houston Chronicle article claims “ex-staffers did not have to use vacation time and, in fact, continued to accrue more time for as long as they were on the payroll.” Preston responded that this statement is “100% false.” He goes on to claim that the article “adds that made-up cost” into the “overall fictional number.”
Preston claims this is not the first time the Houston Chronicle’s Brian Rosenthal has gotten his facts wrong. “Last year, he wrote up a near libelous piece regarding Commissioner Bush’s time in and out of the office,” Preston stated. “He got fact-checked by a more capable reporter, and was found to have distorted his entire report to create a narrative that the facts did not and do not support.”
The Houston Chronicle article claims that the GLO would “not return multiple messages seeking comment, nor did they respond to a hand-delivered request for comment.” Preston rebuts that claim saying, “We tried to work with him on the actual facts at that time, but he chose to make things up instead. Surprise, surprise. Rosenthal and his newspaper have abandoned factual reporting for clickbait.”