- Associated Press - Friday, May 13, 2016

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - A third top official in Ken Paxton’s office was kept on the payroll after she left the agency - this time for nearly six months - state records show, raising more questions about the attorney general’s use of a benefit designed for state employees in extraordinary circumstances.

The Dallas Morning News (http://bit.ly/1TSMHg2 ) reports former staff attorney Martha Fitzwater Pigott left Paxton’s office on Aug. 31, amid turmoil over a $310 million technology contract that she and a team of lawyers oversaw and which was later stalled. But Pigott was paid her salary, about $56,000, plus benefits through Feb. 12 as part of “emergency leave,” according to records provided by Paxton’s office and state salary data.

Pigott was supposed to receive only about a third of that. In a separation letter, a former supervisor referred to it as an offer of two months of “administrative leave.” Her personnel file details no reason for the separation or the paid leave. It also does not indicate whether the former general counsel quit or was fired from her $113,000-a-year job.

And the personnel file does not mention that Pigott was on “emergency leave,” though she was included on a list of people the agency said have received two weeks or more of such pay.

Emergency leave is meant to provide pay for state employees faced with emergencies such as a death in the family or a lengthy illness, or when an agency is forced to shut down due to extreme weather. And it’s generally a benefit intended only for those who are expected to return to their jobs.

Top state officials have also been known to place employees on emergency leave when investigating wrongdoing or during an ongoing employment dispute or lawsuit.

Agency spokeswoman Teresa Farfán would not say whether that was the case with Pigott or whether other circumstances merited her leave. “I can only tell you that currently the Texas Attorney General’s Office is prevented from commenting in this matter,” Farfán said.

Pigott, reached by phone, declined to discuss her departure. She was hired last month as an attorney at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

In two other instances this year in which Paxton’s office paid tens of thousands to ex-staffers, the agency’s human resources director defended the arrangements as a “compassionate” way to reward them for “working tirelessly” for the state. The agency cited a provision that gives agency chiefs wide latitude in granting emergency leave for “good cause.”

But rewarding employees is not what emergency leave is supposed to be used for, said Jim Pearson, a founding member of the state employees union, who noted there is no severance for state workers.

“It really doesn’t make sense to me,” he said. “In fact, that’s antithetical to what I understand about the government code” and laws covering state spending.

As with Pigott’s paperwork, there were several inconsistencies in documents and statements provided by the attorney general’s office about the other two ex-officials who received emergency leave after they exited the agency.

Charles “Chip” Roy, the former first assistant attorney general, left the agency in early March but was kept on the payroll for more than a month after his very public and sudden departure. His resignation letter said he would be taking “administrative leave” until June, but the office said he was on “emergency leave” until that time.

Roy himself, however, offered a third explanation. A cancer survivor, he said he was offered the emergency leave in case his health took a turn but never used it, instead expending his accrued vacation and other leave.

The day after his departure, Roy took up a post as the head of a political committee backing Ted Cruz’s presidential bid. He formally resigned the day after The News wrote about why he remained on the payroll.

Former Communications Director Allison Castle’s resignation letter was identical to Roy’s, but she has said she never asked for the special arrangement. While she remains on the payroll, Castle told the Texas Tribune she was forced out of her job and never had reason to question the offer.

The state auditor has been asked to look into the legality of Roy and Castle’s leave arrangements.

Another former staffer, Katie Lawhon, left the agency in March and intended to use up 216 hours of holiday, vacation and administrative leave, according to her resignation letter.

Marc Rylander, a former pastor from Paxton’s church hired to replace Castle, and other agency officials have repeatedly refused to respond to questions about these staffers from The Dallas Morning News.

But Rylander told the Houston Chronicle that Lawhon received three days of emergency leave. She later told the Texas Tribune that she did not negotiate any additional paid leave beyond her accrued time off with the office.

Lawhon is not among the six employees, including Castle, who got two weeks of emergency leave or more this year, according to a list obtained by The News under the state’s open-records law.

Of the former staffers on that list, Pigott received the most paid leave by far: 856 hours.

Pigott joined the office in 2006, and she steadily rose through the ranks. In 2008, then- Attorney General Greg Abbott bestowed on her an award for “her dedication to helping ensuring Texas children have the resources they need and deserve” for her work in child support.

By September 2014, she was promoted to general counsel over the AG’s Child Support Division, a unit dear to Abbott, who touted its success in tracking down child support scofflaws during his successful run for governor in 2014.

Hiring memos indicate that Pigott was promoted to a team of five attorneys charged with wrangling runaway costs for a problem-plagued technology project, commonly referred to as T2.

She was hired by and worked directly for Charles Smith, a longtime adviser to Abbott who was placed in charge of the project to update an aging mainframe system to a more secure, efficient and cheaper system to aid investigators in tracking parents who don’t pay child support.

Instead, the project fell apart. The state was supposed to pay about $202 million, but by August, the price tag had grown to $310 million. Last fall, news reports detailed numerous failures, including that Accenture’s workers lacked the technical skills needed to get the job done.

A September review by an independent technology expert showed that Accenture repeatedly failed to deliver on its contract, and Texas officials responded by rewarding the company with more money and more autonomy to run the project.

After five years, Accenture and the child support division had little to show for their work, prompting a legislative inquiry in November. Then, Paxton’s former chief of staff indicated that either taxpayers would have to foot the bill to sue Accenture or that they would have to pay the company millions more to finish the job.

While that review was underway, Pigott, who directly oversaw the contract, wasn’t at work but remained on the payroll, records show.

Paxton, a McKinney Republican elected in November 2014, is embroiled in several legal battles over allegations that he broke Texas securities laws during his time as a state lawmaker. Last month, federal officials levied civil fraud charges against him, adding to the three state criminal indictments he was already facing.

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Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com

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