Two top officials at the state agency charged with administering benefits for veterans are out, and a host of their colleagues have been laid off — and state officials are mum about the reason for the departures.
The Veterans Land Board, overseen by Land Commissioner George P. Bush, offers low-interest loans to veterans to buy property or improve homes, operates nursing homes for veterans and oversees cemeteries for veterans.
This month, retired Army Col. Matthew Elledge, senior deputy director, and retired Army Lt. Col. Bill McLemore, deputy director of land and housing programs, left the agency.
By Friday, at least 10 employees at the agency had been dismissed, according to several people who have worked under Bush at the Veterans Land Board.
“The ones who are going to suffer are our veterans,” said one person who was fired. The person asked that their name not be used for fear of harming a chance at future employment in state government.
The General Land Office instead has been dedicating more resources to disaster recovery in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the person said. “The focus has turned from veterans to relief for disaster victims.”
Elledge, who was a Bush hire, told the American-Statesman he left the agency of his own volition to work on veterans issues for nonprofits. McLemore did not return efforts to contact him, but a receptionist at the Veterans Land Board said he no longer worked there.
Bush, who, as land commissioner, is the chairman of the three-member Veterans Land Board, has not returned requests for comment. Houston attorney Andrew Cobos, a gubernatorial appointee to the Veterans Land Board, said he “won’t comment” when asked about the departures and directed calls to Bush’s office. The third member of the Veterans Land Board, gubernatorial appointee Grant Moody of San Antonio, did not return requests for comment.
Elledge earned $175,100 annually, according to a state salary database maintained by the Texas Tribune. McLemore earned $167,157.
The changes come as the Veterans Land Board goes under sunset review by the state. In a report last month, the staff of the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission recommended the agency improve its monitoring of contracts. The Veterans Land Board manages 71 major contracts, with a value of more than $95 million.
“The board itself needs to be more involved in overseeing the contracting process, particularly when entering into multimillion-dollar contracts,” the report says.
It’s not clear who will present for the Veterans Land Board when it comes before lawmakers at a sunset hearing tentatively scheduled for the end of the month.
The developments at the agency echo Bush’s moves at the beginning of his tenure.
Within the first nine months of Bush’s first term, which began in early 2015, at least 111 state workers were fired, retired or quit the General Land Office — about 17 percent of the agency’s workforce.
“We face many threats, asymmetric threats that were probably not around 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago, and many of the threats aren’t external, though we can say that legislators sometimes present those challenges, externally we’re doing fine,” Bush said then. “The real threat is internally.”
In 2017, the Veterans Land Board had 113 employees, according to the Sunset Advisory Commission report.
McLemore was appointed to the top spot at the Veterans Land Board by then-Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson in 2013.
“Texas veterans couldn’t ask for a better advocate to fight on their behalf,” Patterson said at the time. “Bill McLemore is a humble soldier and a dedicated servant who knows how to get things done and will work tirelessly to accomplish any mission he is given.”
McLemore served four combat tours — three in Vietnam and one in the Dominican Republic, retiring in 1986. He had worked for both Democratic and Republican administrations at the county, state and national level. Once his active-duty service was over, he was appointed by the Travis County Commissioners Court as the Travis County veterans service officer, helping veterans prosecute their claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs. In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed him as senior adviser and deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, serving until 2008. He then served as a senior staff adviser and veteran advocate to the director of the VA Heart of Texas Health Care Network.
Garry Mauro, who as land commissioner in 1987 threw a reception to welcome McLemore as the new Travis County veterans service officer, told the Statesman that McLemore is a person “of wonderful integrity.”
In that Travis County post, McLemore became the only non-attorney practitioner in Texas to be certified to prosecute claims before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.
In November 2015, Bush named Elledge the new senior deputy director of the Veterans Land Board, displacing McLemore as the top agency official. Elledge had previously served a three-year stint as garrison commander at Fort Hood.
During the course of his career in the Army, Elledge deployed overseas as part of operations in Kuwait and Iraq.
Elledge in 2017 wrote a book called “The Buy-In Theory,” about how to attract and retain “quality people with the knowledge, training and experience to propel your business forward.”
To promote the book and make himself available for talks, he started a business called Embrace the Edge. As of Thursday, the website for Embrace the Edge appeared to be disabled. But a banner photo posted on the site before it was taken down showed Elledge in Veterans Land Board apparel, in a photo apparently taken from the General Land Office, with the Capitol in the background.
Elledge did not respond to a request for comment about the website.
Texas is home to roughly 1.6 million veterans, according to a 2016 report by the Texas Workforce Investment Council.
Officials who remain at the agency directed all requests to Bush’s communications department. Those calls and emails over the past several days were not returned.
Bush faced a challenge for re-election from Patterson and other candidates in the Republican primary but won nearly 60 percent of the vote.
In the general election in November, he faces Democrat Miguel Suazo.