Ann Bishop was already the highest-paid executive officer in state government as director of the Employees Retirement System of Texas, according to a state auditor’s report.
But shortly before Gov. Rick Perry announced she would become his chief of staff late last year — a post she held only briefly before returning to ERS — agency records indicate she received something of a parting gift: a $162,500 bonus.
Now two legislators examining high executive salaries in state government are raising questions about the timing and size of the payments.
“This is something you see in the private sector, not state government,” state Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, the co-chairwoman of the House Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations, told The Texas Tribune. Alvarado said such payments should come to an end.
Another member of the committee, Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, also criticized the payment.
“Clearly I think the timing of the bonus, the amount of the bonus and the transitional period of the recipient sort of in my view raises a few flags," he said. "It’s very difficult to justify large escalations in salaries and bonuses when we are struggling to come up with a nominal increase in the pay of state employees.”
Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, who co-chairs the transparency committee with Alvarado, said Texans deserve to know the full details about compensation packages like the one Bishop has.
“The whole purpose of the committee is to look into these types of executive director issues around total compensation, and make them transparent and easy to access to all Texans,” Flynn said.
ERS spokeswoman Mary Jane Wardlow said the agency's board of trustees approved the merit-based bonus, along with a salary increase, on Sept. 26.
"The ERS awarded the merit payment in consideration of her management and oversight of ERS, its five retirement programs, and accomplishments in 2012 in the areas of strategy and leadership, the interim benefits study, and her skills as a member of the internal investments committee," Wardlow said in a written statement.
Bishop said in a written statement that she welcomed any scrutiny from the Legislature.
"All of the actions of the ERS board have been in the public record for several months," she said. "As always, we welcome anyone to share their concerns and will make sure the board is fully aware of them."
Perry announced on Nov. 27 that Bishop, director of ERS since 2004, would become his chief of staff effective Dec. 3. The state auditor’s report from August 2012 showed she was earning an annual salary of $312,000 as of mid-year 2012, making her the highest paid executive officer among all the state agencies. The 2012 report noted she was also paid a “one-time bonus” of $26,000 in 2011.
But Wardlow said her records showed a bonus of $15,600 in 2011, and one for $34,650 in 2007. The 2012 payment was her largest bonus so far. She also got a 4.2 percent raise at the late September meeting, boosting her salary to $325,000 a year. The bonus was paid to Bishop on Nov. 1, the same month Perry announced she would become his chief of staff.
Bishop did not stay at the governor's office for very long. She returned to her old job, which had been left open for her, late last month.
ERS had posted an undated news release explaining that Bishop had merely taken a temporary leave of absence to work for Perry — a “sabbatical” — and would return to her job after concluding her stint in Perry's office, according to a blog post by The Dallas Morning News.
The link to that news release was disabled after Bishop returned to the retirement agency, Wardlow said. She said it was posted on the ERS website after the Dec. 7 meeting, when trustees granted her the sabbatical.
Alvarado, the Houston representative, said the bonus and high salary paid to Bishop are evidence that executive compensation needs to be reined in. She said she wants the House Transparency panel to hold a special meeting on that subject.
She said data provided to the committee shows "huge disparities" among various high-ranking executives, and she questioned whether the state should be paying out such large salaries and bonuses at a time when government leaders are calling on agencies to cut back.
“I don’t know who is monitoring this. It’s out of control. I guess they are self-monitoring," Alvarado said. "I guess what’s more appalling is that as state agencies we’re having to make cuts and then we learn that there is supplemental income in such a large amount."