In a wood-trimmed room packed with his employees, George P. Bush spoke matter-of-factly of “many threats, asymmetric threats” swirling around the Texas General Land Office, the versatile state agency he oversees.
But the land commissioner, still in his first few months of office, wasn’t talking about the federal government or plummeting oil prices.
“The real threat, really, is internally,” Bush said in a roughly three-minute address to staffers late last month, according to a video obtained by The Texas Tribune. “And some things that I’ve seen, along with the leadership and along with you, have to be rectified as soon as possible.”
Following those remarks, one of Bush’s most senior staffers had even harsher words for the agency.
“I don’t and won’t suffer individuals that sit on their laurels or count on their connections to get by,” said Anne Idsal, Bush's chief clerk. “No one gets or is entitled to get a free ride on this sled. ... Amassing personal power is out.”
The video highlighted the rising political star’s commitment to shake up the 179-year-old agency he inherited.
Bush and Idsal outlined a “reboot” of an agency that has gained prestige over the years, but has been criticized in a series of recent audits. They are leading an overhaul of the agency, changing salaries — meaning raises for some and cuts for others — and likely trimming its workforce.
The land office is also consolidating its sprawling network of divisions. “It’s very easy to pass the buck with a structure like that,” Bush said in the video. “We need to have more ability to hold each other accountable.”
Bush has already fired two high-level officials just months after touting their skills and experience in press releases: Jorge Ramirez, who headed the coastal resiliency and recovery program, and Rene Truan, director of the new Permanent School Fund Income Division. Joey Longley, the former director of program management, has also left.
The office would not comment on why Ramirez and Truan were fired, and their termination letters do not specify.
Bush’s speech came after State Auditor John Keel found "significant weaknesses" in the General Land Office's contracting process, outlined in a report made public in late July. Other internal audits done in recent months have also found numerous problems at the agency. The Tribune obtained those reports under open records laws.
In one of them, auditors wrote that millions of dollars worth of "emergency purchases" didn't include a full explanation of why they were needed. They also said information about whether anyone at the agency had a conflict of interest with the bidders was missing for several major contracts. That "increases the risk that [contracting choices] could be impaired by personal or financial relationships," the auditors wrote in their report, completed in March.
The report also found problems with awards that the General Land Office had been giving to staff for good performance, in the form of gift cards. In 2014, 129 employees got $22,725 worth of gift cards.
Some of those gift cards — $10,000 worth — were bought without the needed agency approval because they were split into smaller payments, the auditors found. Two recipients of those cards were temporary volunteers for the agency, not employees. And in a four-month period last year, 11 staff members got more than one gift card even though agency policy had limited awards to one per employee every six months.
"Noncompliance with policies for employee awards increases the risk that agency funds may be spent appropriately," the auditors wrote, adding that the money should have been reported to the IRS as income and was not.
Also, an internal audit of construction projects found none of the documentation that is required to prove contractors were paying proper wages.
Many of the audit findings date back to the previous administration, led by Jerry Patterson, and the now-Bush-led agency said they've already been fixed. The gift card program has been nixed, for instance, and the agency said it wrote new contracting standards in January.
Patterson bristles at the suggestion that the agency he led for 12 years was anything but competent, noting that it raised $9.1 billion in mineral wealth (which flows to the state’s Permanent School Fund) during his tenure – far more than in previous decades.
“Those ‘internal threats’ must’ve been doing something right,” Patterson said after viewing the video.
Historically, the land office has been viewed as a place to get things done. It has inherited a number of tasks after goof-ups at other agencies, including handling billions of federal dollars for disaster recovery. The office has also taken over management of the Alamo after allegations of mismanagement by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.
On Friday, the land office declined to comment on Patterson’s administration, saying the shakeup merely showcased Bush’s conservative principles.
"Commissioner Bush believes in taking action to shrink the cost and size of government making it more efficient for our taxpayers,” Brittany Eck, a spokeswoman, said in a statement. “In the next few months we will be making additional announcements about further fiscal efficiency initiatives and increased accountability measures being implemented at the GLO.”