Laid-off official accuses attorney general’s office of discrimination

What we reported

The American-Statesman first reported in July how Attorney General Ken Paxton, during his first weeks in office, filled his agency’s higher ranks with at least 14 people connected to him and other prominent Republicans in spite of state law that requires jobs be advertised when they’re filled from the outside.

A former director in the Texas attorney general’s office has filed a discrimination lawsuit accusing Attorney General Ken Paxton of cronyism after she was laid off and he hired his campaign manager to do a job similar to hers.

Debra F. Owens, formerly the office’s director of grants administration, filed a federal suit Monday that accuses the attorney general’s office of racial and gender discrimination, arguing that she was a black woman who was essentially replaced by a white man.

Thomas Taylor was hired in January 2015 when Paxton was sworn in, records show. Owens was laid off about three months later because of restructuring, her suit says. Taylor was then given a job that “assumed the functions, responsibilities, and employee supervision I previously held” at the contracts and asset management division.

“Thomas Taylor’s background and skills did not meet the basic key components of the position requirements,” Owens wrote in her suit. “It should be noted that he was hired … into a position which was not posted or filled via a competitive selection process.”

The latter statement is supported by an American-Statesman investigation that found that Taylor was one of five people who worked with Paxton previously and were hired at the attorney general’s office after Paxton was sworn in. None of those five jobs were posted before those people were hired.

The attorney general’s office declined to comment about ongoing litigation.

Taylor was also an old college roommate of Paxton’s, which was something he mentioned to employees, Owens said.

When Owens was laid off, she was told to pack up her things and “leave the building immediately,” she told the American-Statesman.

“For an employee who has spent seven years there, I thought that was really insulting,” she said.

In a pre-determination form, the Texas Workforce Commission expressed skepticism that Owens’ firing was because of discrimination, pointing out that white employees at the office were also laid off.

The suit illustrates a consequence from the common but legal — in Texas — practice of politicians hiring politically loyal officials to fill positions once they take office.

“The OAG chose to terminate employment with an employee who had provided the agency with exemplary services for over seven years, who had over 30 years of specific related experience, and who had received three merit raises due to work performance,” Owens wrote.

Owens has previous experience working for the state departments of Health and Human Services as well as Aging and Disability Services, she said.

In response to Owens’ complaint, the attorney general’s office wrote to the Texas Workforce Commission, pointing out that, after being laid off, Owens was free to apply for open positions at the office and she chose not to.

When she was laid off, “there was no discussion for applying for an open position,” Owens said. “I was surprised, because during restructuring that is usually discussed. But that was never discussed with me.”

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