The Pedernales Electric Cooperative board member at the center of controversy regarding his racially tinged Facebook post last November said Monday that there was never any retaliation against co-op employees who complained about it, contradicting allegations from the utility’s former chief executive before he resigned in protest in May and received $1.1 million in separation pay.
James Oakley, who also serves as Burnet County judge, told the American-Statesman he doesn’t believe John D. Hewa resigned because of retaliation against employees who spoke out about perceived racism at the co-op, as Hewa initially stated. Oakley implied that other factors were at play in Hewa’s abrupt exit, raising the issue of Hewa’s “performance” unprompted.
“I am not authorized to comment on the performance of former CEO John Hewa,” Oakley said. He declined to elaborate, saying “it’s up to the reader to imply what they want” from the comment.
Hewa could not be reached for comment. He had worked at the co-op since July 2013 and received total compensation of about $782,000 last year.
Pedernales Electric officials declined to comment Monday on Hewa’s reasons for resigning. They also would not comment on Hewa’s job performance, saying the utility does not comment on personnel matters.
Pedernales Electric’s board approved about $1.1 million in separation pay for Hewa during a May 25 closed-door emergency executive session less than two weeks after Hewa made his allegations, the Statesman previously reported, citing sources with knowledge of the payout. But the co-op has declined to release the figure publicly, and Oakley wouldn’t discuss it Monday.
“I have no comment on anything to do with the settlement or the resignation of John Hewa,” he said.
However, Oakley said, “it’s difficult for me to believe he left because of retaliation.”
“There was absolutely no retaliation against him or any other employees,” Oakley said. “I did not, nor did I observe, any retaliation by employees or other board members. I believe the whole issue was hyped up” for political purposes.
Hewa announced his intent to resign from Pedernales Electric near the beginning of a regularly scheduled board meeting on May 15. At the time, he publicly accusing board members of “inappropriate” conduct in the wake of Oakley’s Facebook post.
In November, Oakley wrote online that it was “time for a tree and a rope” in reference to a black man accused of killing a San Antonio police officer, a comment critics said was a reference to lynching.
“Conditions for some of our key employees in the organization have become untenable because of the conduct of the board, ” Hewa said during the May 15 meeting. “Those of us who spoke up to support minority employees and to object to racially insensitive comments were assured that retaliation would not occur. This has not been the case.”
Pedernales Electric is one of the largest nonprofit, member-owned electric cooperatives in the country, serving nearly 300,000 accounts.
Oakley has chalked up the ongoing controversy regarding the post to political foes, saying he is being targeted because of his status as a supporter of President Donald Trump during the election last fall, and because he hasn’t embraced the use of alternative energy sources as a co-op board member.
He deleted the Facebook comment shortly after making it, apologized and denied that he had any racist intent, saying among other things that he was thinking instead about hangings in the Old West and the humorous take on them in a TV commercial for Pace Picante Sauce.
Oakley said Monday that he isn’t a racist and has never been accused of racist conduct prior to this incident.
The post “was not meant to offend people,” he said. “I don’t care what color (the suspect) is or what planet he is from. It was just a saying — ‘get a rope.’ Never in my mind did it have anything to do with ‘lynching’ that some of them tried to turn it into.”
He said his apology should have sufficed for anyone legitimately upset by the post.
“I think that when someone sincerely apologizes, that you should make an effort to accept that,” he said.
Still, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct formally reprimanded Oakley in early May after receiving 18 complaints about his post. The commission ruled that Oakley “engaged in willful conduct that cast public discredit on the judiciary and the administration of justice” and also “cast reasonable doubt on his capacity to act impartially in the performance of his duties.”
The commission ordered him to complete a class for new judges, and it also mandated that he undergo four hours of racial sensitivity training with a mentor. Oakley hasn’t completed either of those requirements because the commission hasn’t scheduled his sensitivity training yet and the class for new judges hasn’t taken place.
“I will be fully compliant with whatever they came up with,” Oakley said of the commission’s punishment. “I don’t have to agree with it, but I’m not contesting it. I know in my heart what I meant.”
A new complaint against Oakley was filed last week alleging he gave “false and misleading testimony under oath” to the commission when he appeared before it in April to discuss the concerns raised by his Facebook post. The complaint was filed by one of the people who previously filed a complaint against Oakley with the judicial commission, resulting in the April meeting and subsequent disciplinary decision in May.
Oakley said the latest complaint is part of a months-long, coordinated effort to harass him.
“I maintain that this is an orchestrated, politically based attack,” he said. “Welcome to political life. You become a target for trying to do good.”
But if the goal is to get him to resign, Oakley said it won’t work. “That’s giving this group what they want,” he said.
Oakley and Pedernales Electric’s other board members earned $38,250 from the co-op last year, according to the most recent figures available. Oakley also receives a salary of $79,082 as Burnet County judge, as well as a supplement of $25,200 for extra judicial duties that he performs for the county.