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Ex-Texas Agriculture Commission Worker Alleges Discrimination

Shelia Latting, who is black, filed a lawsuit in state district court in Travis County Tuesday, claiming she lost her job a year ago as deputy chief financial officer due to racial discrimination at the agency.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller during a Senate Committee on Agriculture, Water & Rural Affairs hearing on Dec. 8, 2015.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller is facing a lawsuit from a former agency employee who says she lost her job because of her race.  

Shelia Latting, who is black, filed a lawsuit in state district court in Travis County Tuesday, claiming she lost her job a year ago as deputy chief financial officer due to racial discrimination at the agency.  

“We’ve established race discrimination by the mere fact that they terminated a highly qualified woman with an excellent history with the state and replaced her with two Caucasians who were less qualified,” said Susan Haney, Latting’s attorney.

The 21-year state employee is seeking between $200,000 and $1 million in relief and new department policies aimed at preventing future discrimination.

She had served as the agency's deputy chief financial officer since 2012. 

Lucy Nashed, a department spokeswoman, said she could not comment on pending litigation, but noted that the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had already investigated Latting’s complaint and did not conclude that the department had done anything illegal.

Though the lawsuit names Miller as a defendant, it does not directly call the Republican agriculture commissioner a racist.

“We’re not accusing Sid Miller specifically of racism or race discrimination,” Haney said. “We have sued him specifically in his capacity as commissioner.”

The lawsuit says that Miller — days before he was sworn into office last January — offered to promote Latting to chief financial officer and asked her to lead a budget overhaul at the agency.

Latting accepted the promotion in December 2014, she alleges, and spent the holidays hammering out a budget proposal that would include additional money for Miller’s executive staff. But she returned to the office to find Heather Griffith Peterson, the previous chief financial officer, still in that post, according to the lawsuit.

And on Jan. 12, Latting received a letter saying the agency would terminate her job due to a “reduction of force.”  

Peterson resigned from her post the next day, according to the lawsuit.

The agency posted two job openings, each with effectively the same descriptions as Latting’s position, the lawsuit says. Three days later, it hired two white women, whose salaries combined totaled $5,000 per month more than Latting’s. 

At that same time, Miller named Terry Keel, the former executive director of the Texas Facilities Commission, as his assistant commissioner. 

The white women who replaced Latting had worked with Keel at the Facilities Commission. Last April, an internal audit found that the agency had routinely hired employees without competition and gave promotions that “were not supported by a supplemental evaluation.” 

In July 2015, the Austin American-Statesman reported that Keel had brought six former employees to the Department of Agriculture, with several netting quick promotions and raises.

Haney said she’s not sure who specifically at the agency sought to oust Latting, but that it’s Miller’s burden to show that the move was legitimate.

The circumstances, she said, “leave us with no other explanation, but for whatever reason, somebody didn’t want a strong African-American in that position.”

Haney said she wasn’t surprised that the Equal Employee Opportunity Commission did not find the department at fault, because “they really don’t have the resources to do a full investigation,” which would involve taking depositions.

Latting found a new job outside of Texas government nine months after losing her previous one, Haney said, declining to elaborate.

The lawsuit adds another speed bump for Miller as he begins his second year in office. The commissioner has faced scrutiny for rescinding a ban on fried food in schools, posting controversial statements on social media and dramatically hiking fees on agency services.  

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