Uncertainty Haunts Commissioner Kyle Janek

Two reports have criticized Health Commissioner Kyle Janek’s leadership. Three state lawmakers have called for his resignation. And a contract awarded to a vendor on his watch is under investigation. What's a new governor to do?

Health and Human Services Executive Commissioner Kyle Janek whispers to an aide at a hearing of the Sunset Advisory Commission on Jan. 14, 2015.

It’s been a tough year so far for Kyle Janek, the head of the state’s embattled Health and Human Services Commission — and it’s only April.

Two separate government-issued reports have criticized Janek’s leadership. Three state lawmakers, including one Republican, have called for his resignation. And a controversial contract awarded to a private vendor on his watch is being investigated by both the FBI and the state’s public integrity unit.

On top of all that, Janek’s term at the helm of the state’s largest health agency technically expired about two months ago, on Feb. 1.

So now what?

Janek, who did not respond to a request for comment on Monday, has stressed that he would like to keep the job. “I love my job," Janek said in an interview with The Texas Tribune last month. "Why would I want to leave the best job in government?”

The governor, meanwhile, has been relatively quiet in the days since the blistering reports were released. Beyond calling the findings of a review he commissioned to evaluate the leadership of the agency “deeply troubling” and saying that the agency’s problems “go far beyond any individual," he has been evaluating his options, and has not taken a public stand on Janek's future. Moving too quickly might leave the agency in limbo; moving too slowly might put former Gov. Rick Perry's mistake on the new governor's ledger.

Some critics are losing patience.

“Why hasn’t he been replaced?” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston. “I’ve heard one of the difficulties in firing him is, who do you replace him with? But that is a typical government excuse." 

Whitmire, who was among the first to call on Janek to resign in the aftermath of the scandal involving the Austin software company 21CT, suggested Abbott hurry up with his decision.

“I respect Abbott, but I think every day that he has not made a change is a negative reflection on him,” he said. “At some point in time, the speculation is, there’s something that doesn’t meet the eye.”

Abbott, who was previously attorney general and a justice on the Texas Supreme Court, is known for his deliberate, “judicial” management approach. His supporters say he has sent a clear message to the Health and Human Services Commission — by way of an outside review of the agency after revelations that a $20 million fraud-tracking software contract was not competitively awarded — that change is coming. Abbott’s public statement last week indicated there would be “additional actions” taken at the agency “to ensure Texans can have the trust they deserve to be able to place in their government.”

But that change may not require forcibly removing anyone. Given that Janek, appointed two years ago by Perry, is what's known in Capitol lingo as a “holdover appointee,” it's possible that Abbott could merely appoint a successor without having to call for anyone’s resignation. 

The report issued by a team Abbott dispatched to review the problems had stern words for Janek’s leadership, saying he relied too heavily on a “kitchen cabinet” of close associates who kept him insulated from agency problems. Also last week, the state auditor released a report on the agency’s contract with 21CT, which heaped harsh criticism on the commission.

The scrutiny comes at a time when lawmakers are considering how to restructure the state’s five health and human services agencies.

Terri Langford contributed to this report.