At Texas Facilities Commission, special treatment for some

An internal audit of the Texas Facilities Commission released in April found employees who were hired without facing competition, promotions given out with little supporting material and people being paid after they had stopped working for the agency.

Further investigation by the American-Statesman into the agency’s personnel practices has found that some of the people who benefited from the practices described in the audit had personal or political connections to its executive director at the time, Terry Keel, and that Keel has taken some of those employees with him to his new job at the Texas Department of Agriculture.

Keel, a former state representative and Travis County sheriff, says his deep ties in the Austin area explain why so many people connected to him were hired at the agency. “If people I know in the community recommend good people, there’s going to be some of those people that I’m going to hire, and I’m grateful to get the recommendations,” Keel said in an interview.

In reviewing thousands of pages of records obtained through 14 records requests under the Texas Public Information Act and other sources and interviewing current and former employees, the Statesman found that:

• The Facilities Commission, which manages state office buildings, hired Keel’s longtime executive assistant, who is the sister of his ex-girlfriend, and four people related or connected to her. Her son and her son’s girlfriend were hired for job openings that were only posted for one day and faced no competition, agency records show.

• The agency hired the sister-in-law of Keel’s law partner and the ex-wife of another lawyer connected to his firm. One submitted her application before the job was publicly posted, and the other was selected for a position before the minimum 10-day posting period for competitive jobs had expired, according to documents in their personnel files and other public records.

• As the agency was hiring the sister of a top deputy of Keel’s, he made a change to the agency’s nepotism policy that allowed her to work in the same division as her brother, a copy of the revision and personnel data logs shows.

• The nephew of a state lawmaker was allowed to remain on the payroll and collect sick leave pay after he stopped working for the agency, according to the agency’s sick leave logs. The employee was Keel’s real estate agent when he sold a downtown Austin condominium in 2014, a lawyer for the former employee said. Keel and the employee dispute the audit’s characterization that the sick leave arrangement violated state law.

• As the agency’s auditors were investigating the human resources division, Keel launched his own inquiry into their practices that led to an auditor being fired, according to a copy of his investigation obtained by the Statesman. Another resigned shortly after. After Keel left the agency, a new auditor published the report anyway.

Barbara Jenkins, a former human resources director at the Facilities Commission who resigned in 2013, said that Keel and his deputies sometimes fired employees with little reason and replaced them with hand-picked selections who didn’t go through the regular hiring process. (Jenkins said she was forced out for allegedly being caught sleeping at work — an allegation she denies.)

“There’s no position, there’s no opening, and then all the sudden they would just show up,” Jenkins told the Statesman. “They did what they wanted to do.”

Keel, who is now an assistant commissioner at the Texas Department of Agriculture, said that all employees hired during his tenure “were eligible under agency policy and state law for the positions, were hired on merit and were outstanding hires for the agency.”

Scrutiny of the way human resources was handled under his watch misses the bigger picture of what he accomplished for the agency, he said.

“When I arrived at TFC in December 2009, the agency was awash with corruption, including no criminal background checks having been run on prior hires, thus there were employees in sensitive areas with criminal records including felonies and embezzlement,” Keel said in a separate written response. “State resources, such as construction materials and supplies, were routinely being misappropriated to personal use, there was on-duty drug usage and rampant internal theft.”

A fifth-generation Austinite whose family has deep political connections, Keel, a Republican, has forged a varied, successful and periodically controversial political career in liberal Travis County. In the 1990s, he was the county’s sheriff and went on to serve 10 years as a state representative.

In January, he became the Department of Agriculture’s assistant commissioner for enforcement, consumer protection and border security, earning $180,000. It was a $37,000 pay increase for Keel. The position was one of four new assistant commissioner jobs at that pay level that Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller created after he took office in January. Those hirings have come under fire, after a Statesman investigation earlier this year.

Family matters

The Facilities Commission under Keel hired his longtime executive assistant, Bertha Serna, as well as her brother, her son, her son’s girlfriend and her family’s former next-door neighbor.

Serna’s sister is Sylvia Anguiano, with whom Keel said he had a romantic relationship about 20 years ago. Anguiano has worked for former Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst but not for the Facilities Commission.

Serna’s son, Pablo Serna, interned at the commission before being hired as a budget analyst in December 2013. He was dating Laura McCoy when she was hired as a human resource specialist in June 2014, according to the resignation letter of another human resources employee.

Pablo Serna and McCoy were both selected to fill jobs one day after the job openings were posted, according to a draft of the audit that was contained in a report by Keel and obtained by the Statesman. No one else applied for the jobs, according to a records request for all applications that were submitted.

Facilities Commission policy requires job openings that will be filled externally to be publicly posted for at least 10 working days to give the public a chance to apply. There is another type of job posting, called “open until filled,” that can be closed at anytime. A draft version of the April audit obtained by Statesman said the Facilities Commission appeared to be using the “open until filled” route, which wasn’t authorized by the agency’s policy, to shorten how long the postings were public. Pablo Serna was hired through the “open until filled” process, according to copies of the job postings requested by the Statesman.

McCoy’s hiring caused a confrontation between Keel and the human resources department that led to two employees resigning, according to documents in their personnel files. Their departures, like Jenkins’, were part of a pattern of high turnover in the human resources department, which had “operated in crisis management mode” with a rotating cast of managers since 2011, the April audit said.

Alberto Amesquita was chosen for a job at the Facilities Commission in December 2012. He is now a customer service specialist in the surplus property warehouse. He told the Statesman that he used to live next door to the Anguiano family and that they used to take care of his son.

Both Sernas moved to the Department of Agriculture with Keel. Former Facilities Commission employees Diana Warner, Susan Maldonado, Rebecca Sanchez and April Bacon moved to the Department of Agriculture as well.

Keel & Nassour

Two people hired at the Facilities Commission were related to lawyers connected to Keel & Nassour, the private law practice Keel founded with former Texas Longhorn football player Jason Nassour. Keel now holds the position “of counsel” at the firm.

The Facilities Commission hired Nassour’s sister-in-law, Tracy McCourt, in September 2013. McCourt’s application for the job is signed and dated Sept. 5, 2013 — eight days before records show that the job was posted. Nobody else applied, agency records show.

Nassour, who is running for Travis County commissioner next year, said that he recommended McCourt because Keel was looking for applicants but that he didn’t push for her to get hired.

“Tracy is not someone I’m close to. I mean, she’s my sister-in-law, don’t get me wrong, but we don’t spend holidays together,” he said. “It was a recommendation of someone who apparently fit the mold.”

An older version of the Keel & Nassour website lists Jack Bacon under “Our Attorneys.” Bacon is the ex-husband of a longtime Keel colleague, April Bacon, who was selected by the Facilities Commission in September 2012 for a job opening that was posted for five business days, short of the 10-day posting policy. She was also hired through an “open until filled” posting.

She had worked with Keel as a fellow Travis County prosecutor starting in the late 1980s and under him at the Travis County sheriff’s office, the Facilities Commission and now the Department of Agriculture.

Keel said that Jack Bacon only shared office space with his firm and was never an employee. Of April Bacon, he said, “She’s an outstanding attorney and government employee.”

She resigned from the Facilities Commission as director of compliance and asset management and is now the director of financial compliance at the Department of Agriculture.

Risk management

Keel changed the Facilities Commission nepotism policy as it was hiring the sister of one of his top deputies at the agency.

In July 2014, the Facilities Commission removed a prohibition on family members working in the same division, according to a copy of the revision obtained through an open records request. Keel said he made the change.

It was good news for Sonya Gil, whose brother Mark Gil headed risk management at the commission and has a long history with Keel. The paperwork for her hiring as a risk management specialist was initiated on July 15, according to personnel data logs. The policy change was made July 30, a copy of the revision shows. Her hiring was made effective the following Monday.

In January, the commission hired a new executive director who again revised the nepotism policy, and Sonya Gil was moved to another department. The stated reason for the move was that the new nepotism policy prevented her from working in the same division as her brother, she told the Statesman.

Mark and Sonya Gil, both former Austin police officers, said they believe she was never in violation of any version of the nepotism policy because she wasn’t reporting to her brother.

Keel said his policy change prevented relatives from working together in the same program, as opposed to the same division. He noted that both the new and old policies exceeded the minimum requirements in state law.

Audit drama

Although it was a regularly scheduled review, the human resources audit became a tumultuous issue in Keel’s final year at the Facilities Commission.

After he learned what the auditors were probing, Keel filed open records requests to his own agency for their files. Before they received it, he ordered information technology staffers to take a snapshot of the auditors’ files without their knowledge, Keel wrote in a report on the episode.

The agency fired one of the auditors, Robin Kolton, after discovering that she had altered a document on her computer and removed others after receiving the records request. Most of the missing documents were personal in nature, but she also marked a work file as “confidential” and removed others from the computer, according to a copy of the investigation report that was obtained by the Statesman. Keel said he had the incident reported to the Department of Public Safety for a criminal investigation.

Keel said he went after the auditors “because other employees suspected the internal audit staff of inappropriately targeting individual employees’ records outside the proper scope of a personnel audit that was being conducted. It turns out that the other employees’ concerns were well-founded.”

In a letter informing the agency she may sue for wrongful termination and other claims, Kolton contends she was targeted by Keel because of the direction of the audit. In the letter, Kolton’s lawyer writes that she was fired while investigating “numerous instances of missing paperwork, and apparent ‘ghost employees’ (people who were on the payroll who no longer worked for the Agency).” The letter says Kolton was “interrogated” for an entire day before her termination.

Meanwhile, Keel was actively working to have the director of internal auditing, Mark Scott, fired as well. That decision rested with the agency’s appointed commissioners, and Keel produced for them a lengthy report to make the case for the firing. The Statesman obtained a copy of the report, part of which details what Keel saw as Scott’s improper questioning of paid leave use by Aundre Dukes, the nephew of state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin.

Scott resigned in November 2014 and went to work for the Department of Housing and Community Affairs. The audit wasn’t released until Keel’s replacement, Harvey Hilderbran, hired a new audit director who finished the report. Most of the major findings in a draft of Scott’s audit, a copy of which was in Keel’s report on Scott, were included in the final report by his replacement, Amanda Jenami.

Real estate relations

Keel’s investigation shows that Aundre Dukes was one of the persons whom the auditors suspected had collected sick leave pay after ceasing to do work for the agency.

Aundre Dukes and Keel deny that the arrangement violated state law and said that the auditors bent the truth to incriminate Dukes, whom Keel had tasked with heading the agency’s initiative to develop state properties through public-private partnerships.

Dukes left his job as the Facilities Commission’s director of real estate management in April 2014, according to his LinkedIn profile. Agency records, however, show that he was paid through early August, including using 45 days of his accrued sick leave time through mid-June. Making $85,800 per year at the time, Dukes was paid approximately $28,000 during the four months after his last day on the job.

There is no resignation letter in Dukes’ personnel file, but the paperwork for his departure was initiated June 13, two days after he stopped using sick leave.

Reached by phone, Dukes confirmed that he stopped working for the Facilities Commission in April but declined “to discuss or confirm any illness or sick leave matter.” He said he believes he was targeted by the auditors, who were on a “witch hunt.”

“When you work in a political environment, you never know what people’s motivations are,” Dukes said. “It just kind of comes with being related to an elected official.”

Dukes had been hired by the agency before Keel came on board. While both were at the agency, he and Keel did business together outside the office. Online listings for a downtown condominium that Keel sold in 2014 list Dukes as the real estate agent through Dukes’ firm Dekko Realty.

Bill Aleshire, a former Travis County judge and a lawyer for Dukes, said in an email that the condo sale was “a private real estate transaction Aundre handled for Terry involving sale of Terry’s condo that has absolutely nothing to do with the State of Texas or the Facilities Commission.”

Keel said that no employee was ever improperly paid for sick leave under his watch. “In every instance, without exception, employees who used sick leave did so consistent with agency policy and eligible rights under federal law,” Keel said. “There is not a single instance otherwise, including any employee whose last day with the agency coincided with the exhaustion of their sick leave.”

The state’s human resources guidelines say that “there is no authority to pay out an employee’s accrued but unused sick leave balance upon termination.” Keel said he believes this means that agencies cannot dole out lump sum payments of accrued sick leave time but can allow employees to stay on the books and get paid for sick leave after they stop working as long as they have a documented illness. He declined to say whether Dukes was sick, citing privacy concerns.

Jenami, who had no role in the Keel conflict, had a different view. While discussing the four employees who collected sick leave after they stopped working, she wrote in the final version of the audit that the agency “should improve compliance with state law by not allowing terminating employees to remain on payroll while running their sick leave balances down.”

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