Deciphering a Short Turn at the Governor's Office

The Texas Tribune Festival 2012 Opening Session: A conversation with Gov. Rick Perry and Evan Smith, Sept. 21, 2012.
The Texas Tribune Festival 2012 Opening Session: A conversation with Gov. Rick Perry and Evan Smith, Sept. 21, 2012.

Political insiders rarely take things at face value, so it’s not surprising that they are scratching their collective heads over Ann Bishop’s sudden entrance and exit from the office of Gov. Rick Perry.

First, some background.

Bishop, who became executive director of the Employees Retirement System in 2004, was tapped to become Perry’s chief of staff on Nov. 27 of last year. On that day, ERS trustee Cheryl MacBride said she was happy for Perry but sorry that “Ann will not be here to lead us through the legislative session.”

Exactly three months later, on Feb. 27, the governor’s office announced that Bishop would return to ERS. A few weeks after that, The Texas Tribune reported that Bishop had been paid a $162,000 bonus just before she left ERS, prompting criticism from legislators looking into high executive compensation. (And Bishop is No. 1 in that category among state agencies).

Bishop was at the helm of ERS when Perry was told by the agency that he could retire and begin drawing a lucrative pension — without ever leaving the job he has held longer than any Texan.

And so he did.

Here is what Perry said in late 2011 after revealing on federal disclosure forms that he had availed himself of the provision and began drawing over $90,000 a year in pension benefits: “ERS called me and said, 'Listen, you're eligible to access your retirement now with your military time and your time and service, and I think you would be rather foolish to not access what you’ve earned.'”

Amid all of Bishop’s sudden moves, inquiring minds wanted to know: Was she the one who had called Perry way back when? Has Bishop retired, too? And why did she leave ERS so suddenly only to return so quickly?

While a former Perry aide recalled that it was, in fact, Bishop who alerted the governor that he was eligible to double dip, neither the governor’s office nor ERS would play ball.

“We are not privy to the private conversations of the governor,” said Perry spokesman Josh Havens.

ERS was even less forthcoming.

“Individual retirement communication for all members of ERS is confidential,’’ said agency spokeswoman Mary Jane Wardlow.

Double-dipping employees — i.e., those drawing both a salary and a pension — are afforded no less protection under ERS’s airtight exemption from state transparency laws. In Perry’s case, it was only because he ran for president that the public was notified. The pension was revealed on disclosure forms submitted to the Federal Elections Commission.

Despite the state-sanctioned secrecy, ERS's Wardlow did volunteer this answer: Bishop did not retire when she briefly left the system and is not collecting a pension now.

By the way, her compensation while at the governor’s office — which included a $9,000-per-month stipend from Perry’s campaign account — was $325,000 a year, according to Havens.

That is precisely the scenario Bishop walked back into when she returned to ERS, but Wardlow gave more insight. She said that while Bishop expected to run the governor’s office through the session, she decided to return earlier than she originally envisioned, adding that it was “safe to say that it put a strain on her family, and her commitment to put her family first.”