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'Ghost worker' flap renews speaker's feud with critics

AUSTIN -- The long-simmering feud between Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick and some members is once again approaching a rolling boil, this time over the practice of hiring "ghost workers" who are classified as full-time employees qualifying for health insurance and pension benefits but are paid wages on par with part-time help.

The practice, brought to light in a series of reports over the past week by the Austin American-Statesman, prompted Craddick to call a halt to the practice and to launch two internal investigations. And those moves prompted Craddick's critics to suggest that the Republican is feigning outrage for political purposes over a practice that he had at least tacitly approved.

"If there had been a problem with [House] members establishing their own employment procedures, why hadn't we heard anything about it before Craddick called in the Ethics Committee, the State Auditor, the Attorney General and the rest of the free world," Democratic state Rep. Jessica Farrar of Houston said in a letter dripping with sarcasm to her colleagues. "Maybe Homeland Security was busy."

The Austin newspaper documented at least a dozen cases where at least 12 workers employed by various House members were being paid $300 a month or less while earning state benefits reserved for full-time workers. Some were working other jobs or going to school; others were former lawmakers. At least one was living out of state.

Many of the House members defended the practice, saying the workers were providing valuable state services at a comparatively low cost to taxpayers. Critics said they were taking advantage of low-priced health coverage and accruing much-needed payroll time before collecting state pensions. Much of the attention was placed on two former Democratic lawmakers working on the staffs of two sitting Democratic representatives.

Craddick's office vehemently denied knowledge, much less approval, of the hirings.

"By House rules, the individual member is the hiring entity and has total responsibility for the hiring, work assignment and supervision of their own employees," said Alexis DeLee, Craddick's spokeswoman. "Neither [the] House Administration [Committee] nor the speaker has any authority to assign, supervise or terminate a member's employee."

State Rep. Tony Goolsby, a Dallas Republican who heads the House Administration Committee, said that members listing part-time workers as full-timers could run afoul of both House rules and state law. He has asked all 150 House members to review their payroll paperwork to make sure everything is in order

"Designating a state employee as a 40-hour-per-week employee, when the employee is in fact not a 40-hour-per-week employee, brings discredit on the House and undermines the financial structure of the Employees Retirement System of Texas," Goolsby said in a letter to House members.

Several Democratic organizations, meanwhile, have combed through public records that showed that lawmakers of both parties have classified members of their staffs as full time while paying them far below market wages. One, the Lone Star Report, operated by a former staff member of Democratic U.S. Rep. Martin Frost, circulated a Star-Telegram report from December 2002 pointing out that Craddick's adult daughter has remained covered by state health insurance under a law Craddick helped pass in 1997.

DeLee said that a bipartisan majority passed the law and that Christi Craddick, who works as a lobbyist and as the head of a Craddick-controlled political action committee, has always paid the full premium for the coverage.

"It passed overwhelmingly," DeLee said. "It applies to all state employees' children who are qualified, not just legislators."

State Rep. Jim Dunnam of Waco, who heads the House Democratic Caucus, said much of the fuss being made is related to the battle between Craddick and members who have tried to topple him from power over much of the past two years.

"Way too much is being made of this," Dunnam said. "First of all, there are no ghost workers. These are real people doing real work. And second, nobody should be surprised by this. It's been going on for years and years."