In wake of travel spend scandal, TABC refers to self as ‘good steward of state funds’

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As officials at the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission worked on a self-evaluation report for the state’s Sunset Advisory Commission, they were posed a question: does the TABC act responsibly in allocating and spending public money?

The response was a two fisted slam dunk: “TABC works to be a good steward of state funds” reads the report, and is “accountable to the communities it protects, the alcoholic beverage industry it regulates, and the government it serves.”

The evaluation from the agency, one of 32 state operations that will undergo what can be a grueling review process by the commission, was being written in 2017 as state lawmakers elected to limit the state’s alcohol regulators ability to traveling out of state for abusing the public dime.

The self-evaluation was also composed as a state audit. It found that 46 percent of agency trips did not go through the proper approval channels, an issue regulators ranked as a major problem at the TABC. “Prompt action is essential to address the noted concern…” the audit stated, although the issue is not addressed in TABC’s self-evaluation.

Top brass at the agency, along with some select rank and file employees, spent tens of thousands of dollars on extravagant junkets to Hawaii, California and Florida, sometimes mixing personal funds with public.

The agency kept lackluster records of agency vehicles and at one point used state time and money to create a photoshopped flyer depicting a crew of grinning agency leaders in a private plane on their way to a conference in San Diego, waving beer bottles.

The agency also threw soirees using public money with a roster of attendees including the alcohol industry interests the TABC is charged with regulating.

The spendy behavior took place over a three-year period, starting in 2014. Meanwhile, the agency doled out bonuses to 30 percent of its roughly 600 employees in each fiscal year from 2015 to 2017 — totaling $473,652, according to data compiled by Texas Monitor.

Most agencies in that period staggered the number of bonuses handed out annually, with one year heavy on the awards and the next less so. The TABC gave out consistent rewards annually.

While the shenanigans at the TABC made headlines, the transgressions and spending were not mentioned in the agency’s self-evaluation.

The agency wrote in its report to the Sunset Commission that the TABC’s internal watchdog, the  Office of Professional Responsibility, is a pillar of conscience: “Due to the law enforcement nature of its work and a high level of interaction with the public, TABC must maintain high standards of conduct and responds quickly and effectively to any complaints against its employees.”

The self-evaluation said that because the TABC serves the public, “the agency places high standards of conduct and professionalism upon all its employees. However, when employee misconduct occurs, the agency has mechanisms in place to ensure appropriate measures are employed to correct the situation.”

As far back as 2009, the TABC made news for its inability to police itself, with a national story on the paucity of sustained complaints against its employees.

The trail of malfeasance that prompted lawmakers to rescind the agency’s travel money last year was not discovered internally, but was  initially unveiled via papers filed in a lawsuit against the TABC. News agencies picked up on the evidence and found more.

“The [Sunset] Commission is going to know” what happened with regard to the spending problems, TABC spokesman Chris Porter said. “We answered all the questions they asked of us, and there will be plenty of time for the commissioners to ask us questions, and the Legislature will follow.”

He expects the Sunset Commission will be curious about the Office of Professional Responsibility.

Porter said he could not address how the office missed the travel binges, but noted that the head of internal affairs, Andy Peña, stepped down in the wake of the scandal.

Former TABC Commissioner Steve Weinberg said the whitewash in the self-evaluation is standard practice.

“Why would you make yourself look bad before going into the sunset review?” said Weinberg, who stepped down in May for health reasons as the probe into the agency began. “Every agency pats themselves on the back.”

Weinberg, one of three commissioners appointed by the governor to direct the agency, added that the travel in question, at the least, “looked terrible.”

“The biggest mistake was the cartoon,” he said. “It was the dumbest thing, and I can’t figure out how it got by so many eyes without anyone realizing how bad it was.”

As the discovery of the agency’s poor performance unfolded, executive director Sherry Cook – one of the officials depicted in the flyer — resigned. The state audit in July found that Cook had submitted and approved her own travel requests.

In the agency announcement of her resignation, Cook was heralded in a TABC press release as being a figure who “epitomizes the strength of Texas women…”

In all, six employees — Executive Director Cook, General Counsel Emily Helm, Chief of Enforcement Earl Pearson, Internal Affairs chief Peña, Licensing Director Amy Harrison and Acting Executive Director Ed Swedberg left TABC in the wake of the revelations.

Cook, Helm and Swedberg did not respond to a call. The other departees could not be reached.

While it’s unlikely the Sunset Commission will suggest doing away with or folding the TABC into another agency, it is a look at the ability of a government agency to unrepentantly carry on in the wake of proven malfeasance.

“Some agencies play games with the self evaluation, “ said Sunset Commission Director Ken Levine. “They don’t put everything down and shade it a certain way. We’ve been doing this for so long, we see right through it.”

The TABC summarized how it views the future with a reference to the present, notably avoiding the recent past: ”Changes in key leadership positions occurred in 2017, most notably a new chair of the commission and a new Executive Director,” the report noted. “With new leadership comes a new perspective, approach, and philosophy.”

The Sunset Commission is scheduled to begin its review of the TABC in April.

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected]

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