Less than a year after being elected to lead the oldest state agency in Texas, Land Commissioner George P. Bush has dramatically remade the General Land Office by ousting most of its longtime leaders and replacing many with people with ties to his campaign and family.
Eleven of the top 18 officials on the agency’s organizational chart a year ago have been fired or forced out or have quit, and more could leave soon in an overhaul that Bush has described as a “reboot.”
In their place, Bush, a former Fort Worth resident, has given top jobs to two of his law school classmates, two relatives of members of two Bush presidential administrations and at least three others with ties to the family or other political leaders.
In all, Bush has hired at least 29 people who worked on his campaign or have political connections, according to a review of thousands of pages of personnel records. The agency did not advertise any of the openings publicly.
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“I campaigned as a fiscal conservative with proven experience in the private sector seeking to make government more efficient and responsive,” Bush told the Austin American-Statesman, adding that he’s taking a “surgical approach to reforming the agency.”
“That means methodically restructuring all areas of operation and keeping high performers who are serving well, while attracting talented professionals to help lead this organization to serve Texans better,” said Bush, who is considered a rising star in the Republican Party.
State law requires all agencies considering external candidates for a job to post the opening with the Texas Workforce Commission. Newly elected statewide officials often ignore the requirement for some core positions. Attorney General Ken Paxton and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller have been publicly criticized for doing it a few times this year.
But Bush’s hiring differs because it is so far-reaching, with hires ranging from a temporary transition director to five campaign veterans hired permanently for the new position of “regional outreach coordinator.”
Bush made many so-called appointment hires before even taking office but has continued them well into this year.
The General Land Office, established in 1837, oversees all state public lands and also leases mineral rights to oil and gas companies, generating billions of dollars for schools. Bush, the grandson and nephew of presidents and the son of current presidential candidate Jeb Bush, was elected in November.
Bush has said the reboot is needed to address “internal threats,” such as overlapping job duties and a lack of accountability, and to set an example of conservative leadership by cutting the agency’s budget by 10 percent.
The office has also said that most employees under former Commissioner Jerry Patterson have stayed under Bush.
Overall, about 500 people in the agency of roughly 600 have stayed, according to personnel records and interviews with former employees. Some of the 100 departed staffers have been replaced, and some have not.
Among the agency’s top leadership, however, the changes have been more comprehensive.
A half-dozen leaders left just after Bush was sworn in early in January. Larry Laine, who as chief clerk was in charge of managing the agency’s day-to-day operations, stepped down in May. This month, the agency ousted officials such as government relations director Susan Biles and agency spokesman Jim Suydam.
The changes have lowered the average tenure among the top three dozen officials at the agency from 11 years to five, according to an analysis of personnel records.
Of the 36 slots, just 11 are filled by the same people as when Bush was elected. Ten are new to the agency, and six are new to their positions. Nine of the jobs are vacant.
Patterson said the turnover has “imploded” the agency.
The Republican, who held the job for 12 years, said the agency had been making record profits from its mineral lease sales and outperforming other agencies with its investments while increasingly being trusted with new responsibilities, such as managing the Alamo.
“You don’t lead by making change for the sake of change,” Patterson told the Houston Chronicle. “You don’t lead by creating an atmosphere where all of the employees are hunkered down, waiting to be fired. You don’t lead by demanding loyalty oaths. You don’t lead with weekly purges.”
Patterson said the appointment hires he made after Bush was elected were at his successor’s request.
“This whole idea is all about looking good,” Patterson told the Statesman.
Despite recent audits that criticized “significant weaknesses” in how the agency managed contracts under Patterson, the former commissioner called Bush’s shake-up “a purge of the best agency in Texas government and a purge of people who have done wonderful things.”
Chapter 656 of Title 6B of the Texas Government Code prohibits appointments from outside the agency except in cases of reorganization ordered by the Legislature.
“Any agency, board, bureau, commission, committee, council, court, department, institution, or office in the executive or judicial branch of state government that has an employment opening for which persons from outside the agency will be considered shall list the opening with the Texas Workforce Commission,” the law says.
Commission spokeswoman Lisa Givens said she did not know who was responsible for enforcing that law. The commission does not check to ensure that jobs are posted, she said.
The attorney general’s office referred questions about the law to the workforce agency.
Personnel records show that Bush directed at least 40 external hires from November to July but listed only four of those with the Workforce Commission.
The average salary for those four was about $65,000. The average salary for the 36 unposted jobs was $90,000.
Ten jobs went to campaign aides, including temporary transition director Trey Newton, who made $17,500 per month, and the five regional outreach coordinators, who are making $55,000 a year. Newton, the campaign engineer Bush once called “our Karl Rove,” left in January. He did not return a call seeking comment.
Another campaign strategist, Ash Wright, and his wife, Patty Wright, both got unposted jobs in December with annual salaries of $120,000 and $48,000, respectively. Both have left, with Ash Wright returning to Bush’s campaign.
The campaign’s spokesman, J.R. Hernandez, got a more permanent job as Bush’s chief of staff, with an annual salary of $110,000. Hernandez, the son of George W. Bush adviser Juan Hernandez and a 2008 college graduate, started the job exactly a week after the election. The application in his personnel file is not signed or dated, and there is no offer letter, making it hard to determine a timeline of employment.
Offer letters were missing from 13 of the personnel files reviewed by the Chronicle. In cases when they were included, they showed that job decisions for unposted positions were made quickly. For example, Becky Dinnin, who had worked for the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, applied for Alamo division director Jan. 30 and received an offer letter that day.
The non-campaign-related hires with personal connections included a pair who, like Bush, graduated from the University of Texas law school in spring 2003: Hector Valle landed the job of special counsel with a $120,000 salary, and Brian Carter was named head of the asset management division, with a $138,500 salary.
No appointment hire has been more important than that of Anne Idsal, who was named general counsel in November and was quickly promoted to chief clerk, the top job, with a salary of about $200,000. She graduated from law school five years ago.
Idsal is the granddaughter of Anne Armstrong, a former ambassador to the United Kingdom and close adviser to President George H.W. Bush, and the daughter of Katharine Armstrong, a well-known Texas GOP donor.
Idsal’s own résumé included a stint working for U.S. Sen. John Cornyn — and an internship with President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign in 2004.
Land office spokeswoman Brittany Eck said Bush hasn’t decided which of the vacancies, if any, will be filled, nor does the office have an estimate of how much money was saved through staff cuts. As part of the reboot, Bush is asking his top managers to justify each expense in their budgets.
Several former land office employees declined to comment because they are looking for new state jobs or fear losing incentives offered to departing employees, including compensation for unused vacation days and up to $15,000 for those who voluntarily retired.
But Dennis Ku, a former manager in the office’s disaster recovery unit, said many employees were shocked when they were told they no longer had jobs and were escorted from the building by security.
“They were just brought in one day and told, ‘OK, you guys, you’re gone,’ ” Ku told the Statesman.
“It just seems to me like they’re just getting rid of people,” he said. “The communication down through staff — none of that’s happening. Nobody knows why.”
This report includes material from the Houston Chronicle and the Austin American-Statesman.