Terry Keel brought plenty of familiar faces to Agriculture Department

On Jan. 12, a week after newly elected Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller was sworn into office, Shelia Latting, the deputy chief financial officer for the Texas Department of Agriculture, was told that due to a “reduction in force” that would eliminate her position, she was being laid off, effective immediately.

Yet the following work day, the agency posted an opening for a job Latting said was the same classification number as hers, as well as for a new, second position she said closely matched her old work. “How is replacing me with two people a reduction in force?” she said.

The two jobs were listed for only three days before being filled with associates of Terry Keel, the newly hired assistant agriculture commissioner.

They have had ample company. An American-Statesman review of employment records from the Agriculture Department and the Texas Facilities Commission, where Keel was executive director for five years, shows he arrived at his new position with a large number of his own support personnel in tow. The Agriculture Department has added six new employees who worked with Keel at the Facilities Commission.

Several of the new hires also received speedy promotions and raises, despite their short tenures at the agricultural agency. Two of Keel’s former colleagues from the Facilities Commission, for example, earned double-digit percentage salary bumps within weeks of moving to the Agriculture Department, records show.

In fact, of all the agency’s new hires, the only ones to receive raises as of June were those with the close connections to Keel.

“Each of the individuals was hired based upon merit and their abilities to perform job duties,” Agriculture Department spokesman Bryan Black said. “All hiring was done in accordance with state and federal law.”

Black said the new employees’ salaries all fell within their proper classification ranges, and that their pay raises were the result of agency reorganizations after their hiring that added responsibilities to their jobs.

Filling government jobs with friends and supporters isn’t unusual. There is a long, if informal, tradition of new administrations going through the motions of posting job vacancies, only to fill them with employees who happen to have close connections or a history of proven loyalty to the new boss.

Keel, who has accumulated wide political influence through his long career in state and Travis County politics, doesn’t dispute that he helped populate the Agriculture Department with his associates. “Per Commissioner Miller’s direction, I did my best to encourage the best and brightest talent to fill the agency’s needs, and I knew these hires particularly fit that category,” he said.

Still, the Agriculture Department’s moves have the potential to cost taxpayers money. Latting, who is African-American, has filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the department, claiming racial discrimination.

The revelations also contribute to a pattern of controversial personnel decisions Miller has made in his short tenure as commissioner, in which he has hired associates at notably high salaries. As the Statesman reported earlier this year, Miller, a former state representative and lobbyist, created four new assistant commissioner positions soon after his election. Each paid $180,000 (Miller himself earns only $137,500).

Though Miller said he hired the best people he could find, one of the jobs was filled by the wife of his longtime political consultant and business partner. A second assistant commissioner position was filled by another of Miller’s political consultants.

Quick raises

Keel was the third assistant commissioner hired by Miller. An Austin native and the son of a longtime state government executive, Keel has held numerous elected and appointed government positions over the past two decades.

After working as an assistant prosecutor in the Travis County district attorney’s office, Keel was elected sheriff, holding that position from 1992 to 1997 — a rare Republican to occupy the office in Democratic-leaning Travis County. For the next 10 years, he served as elected state representative for District 47, which encompasses an area surrounding Lakeway, northwest of Austin.

After working as then-House Speaker Tom Craddick’s parliamentarian for two years, Keel in late 2009 was named executive director of the Texas Facilities Commission. The commission — whose members are appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker — oversees the state government’s physical plants.

Keel’s latest move — assistant agriculture commissioner in charge of enforcement, consumer protection and border security — earned him a $40,000 salary increase from his Facilities Commission job. Since his Jan. 12 appointment, a half-dozen other employees with close connections to him have been hired by the Agriculture Department, all at higher salaries than they were earning previously.

Bertha Serna has worked with Keel for nearly three decades, most recently as his executive assistant at the Facilities Commission. She was earning $67,320 when she left the agency in early January. Records show she was hired at the Agriculture Department at the same salary. Less than three months later, she was given a 19 percent raise, to just over $80,000.

Bertha’s son, Pablo, left the Facilities Commission on March 11. A day later, records show, he moved to the agriculture agency as a financial analyst, at a pay rate of $4,000 a year more than he was earning at his previous job.

Diana Warner also followed Keel to his new job. As the chief financial officer at the Texas Facilities Commission, Warner earned $127,000 annually. She quit that position on Jan. 20. A day later, she started the same job at the Agriculture Department at more than $135,000 a year — a 6 percent bump. Attorney Susan Maldonado received a $3,000 raise by following her boss from facilities to agriculture.

CFO to unemployed?

Shelia Latting had accumulated more than 15 years of government financial experience when she was hired by then-Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples in June 2012 as deputy chief financial officer. Having just finished a training program for financial executives, “I was looking for something closer to CFO,” she said.

Latting said that she was prepared for change when Miller was elected last November. “When a new administration comes in, they often bring in a new team,” she said. “Everyone knows that.” She said she had just been offered an executive position with a charter school, a backup plan if the new commissioner wanted to shake up the agency’s financial team.

But Latting said she soon received strong signals that Miller not only intended to keep her at the agency, but promote her. On Dec. 23, she said, Miller called her into a meeting to seek her advice on a contracting matter.

The meeting went well, Latting said, and Miller asked if she was interested in being promoted to chief financial officer. The new commissioner provided her with his cellphone number and personal email address, which Latting took as a signal of his intention to appoint her to the new position.

Soon after the Christmas break, Latting said she was summoned to another meeting, this time with new Assistant Commissioner Kellie Housewright-Smith — wife of Todd Smith, Miller’s longtime consultant and occasional business partnerand told of the plan to have Latting take over the head financial job. Latting said she orally accepted the offer.

Housewright-Smith (who left the department in March) declined to comment, and Latting said she has no written documentation of the offer. “We can’t speak to how Ms. Latting perceived internal communications during the agency’s transition,” Black wrote. Yet texts and emails reviewed by the Statesman between Latting and agency executives during that period appear to reference the new position.

But Latting said when she returned to the office after New Year’s, Miller and his executive team were strangely distant, not responding to her letters. “That’s when I knew something wasn’t right,” she said.

On Friday, Jan. 9, Latting said, she was called into Housewright-Smith’s office and told she was being let go because of the force reduction. While her pay would continue through April, she was asked to pack her belongings and was escorted from the building.

State records show two Agriculture Department financial vacancies were posted the following Monday, Jan. 12. Both were closed on Jan. 16. Black said the quick turnaround was necessary because of the impending legislative session.

The fact that Latting’s job was eliminated as part of a reorganization, he added, qualified as a “reduction in force” regardless of what replaced it. “Neither of the two new positions that were created had the same title,” Black said, noting that Latting could have applied for the jobs but didn’t. Latting said she was never told of the openings, and by the time she heard about them, they’d closed.

One of the new hires, April Bacon, has accompanied Keel for most of his career, working under him at the Travis County sheriff’s office, the Texas Legislature and the Facilities Commission. Her ex-husband, attorney Jack Bacon, represented Rick Perry’s legislative director, Ken Armbrister, in the grand jury investigation that led to the former governor’s indictment last year. An older version of the website of Keel’s law firm, Keel & Nasour, shows Jack Bacon listed as one of the firm’s attorneys; Keel said the two only shared office space.

As director of compliance and asset management for the Facilities Commission, April Bacon left earning $101,000 on Jan. 20. Records show she started at the Agriculture Department as administrator of financial compliance a day later earning $1,000 a year more — approximately what Latting was earning when she left the agency. Six weeks later, Bacon was given a raise to $114,000 a year, state records show.

Rebecca Sanchez was earning $81,600 serving as an accounting manager under Keel at the Texas Facilities Commission. When she followed him to the agriculture agency following Latting’s dismissal, Sanchez gained more than $6,000 in annual salary, to $88,200. That was hiked again, to $90,500, on March 1.

Latting said she has applied for 40 financial positions at various state agencies since losing her Agriculture Department job, and has been called for only a single interview. Her discrimination complaint against the agriculture agency is pending.

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