- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 26, 2016

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Attorney General Ken Paxton is still paying a former top staffer more than a month after she left the agency, and aides refuse to answer questions about a special payment arrangement for her and Paxton’s former deputy amid a staff shake-up.

The Dallas Morning News (https://bit.ly/1SFnIws ) reports Paxton’s office has not responded to several questions about why Allison Castle, the attorney general’s former communications director who was replaced on March 9, remains on the state’s payroll at a rate of nearly $13,000 a month.

The News submitted several questions about Castle’s status via email on April 18. Five days later, Castle’s replacement, Marc Rylander, told The News to resubmit the questions through the agency’s public records division, an unusual response to a request for basic staffing information.

Castle did not respond to requests for comment. She is on track to be paid another month’s full salary on May 2, two months after Rylander replaced her at the agency.

The communications blackout came a week after The News first reported that former First Assistant Attorney General Charles “Chip” Roy remained on the state’s payroll more than a month after the agency publicly announced his resignation. The next day, Roy formally resigned from Paxton’s office, saying he was still being paid because he had remaining vacation and other leave time he was using.

But Roy, a cancer survivor, also said he had set up a deal with Paxton’s office to go on emergency leave until June 10 - and pull down nearly $50,000 pay in the process - so he could retain the health coverage offered to state employees if he needed it.

A clean bill of health at a recent doctor’s visit meant he never had to take advantage of the special leave arrangement, he said, so he formally resigned the day after The News’ story and backdated his last day at the agency to April 7. Roy has headed up a political committee supporting Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential bid since March 10, but records released last week show he has been working free of charge until now.

Agency representatives have repeatedly said Roy has been on emergency leave since they first announced his resignation on March 9. They have not answered questions about why Roy said this wasn’t the case, or why his original resignation letter stated he was taking administrative leave.

Administrative leave is capped at 32 hours per year per employee, according to state law.

An agency head can approve emergency leave for an employee who “shows good cause to take” it, but this leave is often only extended to those who plan to return to their jobs. Texas employment law prohibits state workers from earning full-time salaries if they don’t work at least 40 hours a week for a public entity, and there is no severance for workers who leave state employment.

The agency has not answered questions about the nature of Castle’s leave, or whether she, like Roy, had an arrangement to get a paycheck from the state for three months after her departure.

Roy’s resignation from the agency in early March was unexpected. While Castle’s departure wasn’t publicly announced, media outlets soon reported she, too, had left Paxton’s office. The two were replaced the same day they left, Roy by Liberty Institute attorney Jeff Mateer and Castle by Rylander, a former pastor.

Neither Mateer nor Rylander had experience working in government, and they were hand-chosen by Paxton, who did not heed a state hiring law requiring state posts to be publicly advertised. Mateer told The News that the law, on the books for decades, does not apply to “leadership positions he trusts.”

Paxton has been characteristically media-shy during his tenure as attorney general, which began last year. He faces three felony indictments as well as federal civil fraud charges over a securities deal.

When it comes to questions from the media, state officials aren’t technically required to answer, though agencies employ teams of professionals to do so. They must respond to records requests under the Public Information Act, however, which is the state law that gives them 10 days to gather, redact and even withhold some information before releasing it.

“In order to thoroughly answer the questions you are asking, please submit your requests as requests for documents under the Public Information Act,” Rylander wrote in response to questions about Castle’s employment.

His email came after the office’s spokeswoman said answers to these questions would be ready this week.

“Very sorry, we have several folks traveling back to town from DC and have been out of pocket. It looks like I probably won’t have answers for you until tomorrow. Thanks for your patience with this,” spokeswoman Cynthia Meyer said last Tuesday. The News did not receive another message from the agency until Rylander’s email Friday.

Rylander’s request that The News submit all questions through the open-records law isn’t without precedent, said Freedom of Information Foundation Executive Director Kelley Shannon.

“Unfortunately, a government agency doesn’t always respond or provide information when verbally asked for information outside of the Public Information Act,” she said.

___

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

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