- Associated Press - Saturday, May 28, 2016

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Several state agencies are sidestepping Texas law by keeping employees on the payroll months after they’ve left their jobs as part of deals that in many cases are designed to keep former employees quiet, according to newly obtained state records.

At least seven former workers at the Teacher Retirement System were given as much as six months of paid “emergency leave” in exchange for signing documents promising not to discuss the deals or sue the agency. Those people ultimately received about $235,000 in salary.

Records obtained by The Dallas Morning News (https://bit.ly/1X3zXaL ) show the attorney general’s office and Health and Human Services Commission are among other state agencies using this once obscure benefit to settle or avoid employment disputes. Emergency leave is meant to give workers a financial cushion of a few days’ pay in the event of a death in the family or other extraordinary event.

“It’s just unbelievable, and it’s illegal,” Buck Wood, a former Texas comptroller official and an expert in state finance and ethics laws, told the newspaper.

The records reveal a widespread and unpoliced practice of paying former employees tens of thousands of dollars for weeks and months of work that’s never done.

Some state offices, like the Department of Agriculture, have used emergency leave to provide severance with no legal strings attached.

Wood said there’s no mechanism in state law that allows agency chiefs to dole out severance, but because the law that created emergency leave is vague, “officeholders think, well, I can do whatever I want to.”

“This is a dangerous thing, and I think it’s clearly illegal,” Wood said. “It can be totally arbitrary and discriminatory.”

Some lawmakers have vowed to crack down on any abuse of emergency leave.

“The more we learn, the more concerned I become about this issue - which appears to be occurring across state government,” Republican state Sen. Jane Nelson said. “We need a legislative fix, and I am in the process of researching ways to tighten up the law during the next legislative session.”

Teacher Retirement System spokesman Howard Goldman cited personnel rules in declining to provide details about seven settlements obtained through the open records law, and he denied his agency has used emergency leave as severance.

“As a general rule, severance is a payment, usually based upon a formula tied to length of service, that is payable to an employee upon separation of employment and that is evidenced in a written policy or employment agreement,” he said. “TRS does not provide severance pay to any employee.”

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

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