Top liquor regulator got "hazardous duty" pay on Hawaii junket
The state's top alcohol administrator received "hazardous duty" pay while in Hawaii. And the TABC brass has gotten trained as police officers, which allows them to get take-home cars, free gas and an array of weaponry, according to records and interviews.
The state’s top liquor regulator got “hazardous duty pay” — typically provided to state employees doing risky work — while attending alcohol industry conferences at fancy resorts in Hawaii, Florida and California, state records show.
The reason: Sherry Cook was trained as a “peace officer” — a cop — a designation that allowed the director of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission to increase her take-home pay, get a state-owned vehicle and fill her tank with free state gas.
Cook is not alone.
TABC paid to help Deputy Director Ed Swedberg get trained last year as a certified police officer and gave him a car even though he — like Cook — is a civilian employee whose job description does not require peace officer certification, records show.
The agency's annual reports show the number of employees provided state-owned cars at TABC's Austin headquarters has more than doubled in less than a decade. In 2008, six people at agency headquarters had state-provided cars, the report that year said. By the 2016 fiscal year, that number had shot up to 15, the reports show.
High-powered weapons apparently come with the job, too. A top former TABC official said he ordered Cook an M4 Carbine — an assault rifle similar to an M16 — plus a Glock pistol, a bulletproof vest and handcuffs, all as part of the standard-issue package peace officers at the agency get.
“They are just carrying their peace officer commissions to reap benefits,” said Darryl Darnell, the agency's former inspector. “They just wanted to be peace officers so they could drive a car and carry a gun.”
Darnell, now a deputy constable in Williamson County after leaving the agency in 2015, has gone on to become an unofficial whistleblower taking on the top TABC brass.
TABC said it broke no rules but declined to answer the Tribune’s questions about the peace officer certifications and the perks that come with them. Nor would TABC say how many peace officers are in civilian jobs.
"TABC is in compliance with state law regarding the training, compensation and equipping of employees. All records are public and are available on the agency website or via the Public Information Act," said agency spokesman Chris Porter.
TABC cited law enforcement privilege in withholding certain information the Tribune requested from the state comptroller's office. The agency reports vehicle assignments to state accountants, but that information seems shoddy. For example, a car assigned to former agency director Alan Steen was still being filled with state-provided gasoline as of late last year, according to state comptroller's office records
Steen gave up his car when he left the agency five years ago.
Answers about perks and compliance with state rules could come Thursday, when agency honchos are expected to appear before the House Committee on General Investigating and Ethics. Lawmakers have already said they want to know more about some of the spending practices revealed last month by The Texas Tribune.
The Tribune reported that agency brass has spent tens of thousands of dollars sending top officials to liquor industry conferences at fancy resorts from Palm Harbor, Florida, to Honolulu. The gatherings are usually held at swanky hotels where golf and beach visits were part of the social agenda.
The Texas House of Representatives reacted quickly to the reports of the far-flung junkets, voting unanimously last week to yank the agency’s out-of-state travel privileges as soon as this summer unless it’s for bonafide law enforcement or investigative functions.
The new revelations are adding fuel to the fire.
“Hard questions have to be asked about whether there’s been a misuse of taxpayer resources, whether any laws have been broken and whether there is a pay-to-play culture, with relationships that are too cozy to the industry,” the committee's chair, Rep. Sarah Davis, R-Houston, said this week.
When she attended the conferences, Cook was getting hazardous duty pay, according to comptroller records that show a Jan. 1, 2009, start date for the additional state payments. Hazard pay amounts to $10 a month for every year an employee is a peace officer. Cook, who has been certified at least since 2009, is now getting $80 extra per month, the records show. According to comptroller records, Cook earns an annual salary of $153,502.
Swedberg has not been a peace officer long enough to get hazardous duty pay, but he will be soon, the comptroller records show. He was commissioned last year after TABC paid to help him get peace officer training at the University of Texas, according to records published by online cop beat blogger Ty Clevenger.
Audit and Investigations Chief Dexter Jones, a certified peace officer, was collecting hazardous duty pay while on trips to Hawaii and California; other TABC officials listed as attendees to liquor industry conferences in Texas are also eligible to receive the pay boost, according to the comptroller records.
Another perk: Under state pension laws, TABC employees who log 20 years as peace officers also sweeten their annual retirement benefits considerably, according to Employee Retirement System literature.
TABC regulates tens of thousands of alcohol permit holders in Texas and is tasked with enforcing laws on underage drinking and other alcohol-related crimes. TABC agents enforcing the law are required to be certified peace officers as part of their jobs. So are some of their higher ups, online job descriptions show.
But officials whose jobs are administrative or regulatory in nature do not have to be certified as peace officers — as Cook acknowledged in sworn testimony.
“I don’t have to be [a peace officer] for the role that I serve,” Cook said under oath last year in a civil deposition.
The top administrators do have to get trained as cops, however, in order to drive state-owned cars, according to the TABC’s annual report.
“Vehicle assignments to headquarters personnel are limited to commissioned peace officers,” the report says. “Officers are subject to call twenty-four hours a day and job duties may require immediate response to situations affecting the safety and well-being of the public and the effective administration of the agency.”
TABC declined to list occasions in which Cook or Swedberg had to use their unmarked police vehicles to respond to emergencies or participate in legitimate law enforcement operations.
However, Cook testified under oath in a 2016 deposition that a TABC assistant chief once played a practical joke on her and activated her red and blue car lights, which she didn’t discover until noticing them reflect off the back window of a car in front of her.
Darnell said Cook later told TABC officials that numerous vehicles saw the lights and pulled to the side of the road before Cook figured out her lights had been turned on without her knowledge.
Cook acknowledged in the same 2016 deposition — on file with a state district court in Falls County in an unrelated lawsuit related to a TABC’s official’s termination — that she sometimes went to a nail salon in her state-owned car.
“I do on lunch hour grab lunch right next door to the nail place and get my nails done, I do not deny that,” Cook said. “It is incidental use, which we are all as peace officers allowed to do.”
Vehicle records show Cook was assigned a 2008 Chevy Impala “undercover” police car with 125,000 miles on it as of late 2016.
Many longtime state liquor agents are stuck with old, high-mileage cars — a point Cook recently drove home in an urgent request to lawmakers for more vehicles.
The agency director has since moved on to a newer model, according to Darnell, the TABC insider-turned-whistleblower. When he left the agency in 2015, Darnell said Cook was driving a newer state-owned Ford SUV.
“I know they special ordered one for her because she was raising hell that it was delayed,” Darnell said.
The agency won’t say whether Cook or someone else is currently driving the 2008 Impala, which records indicate was still using state gasoline in late 2016.
Darnell said he wasn’t surprised that the TABC vehicle data was not up to date, even though state fleet management guidelines require agencies to update vehicle assignments when they change hands.
When he was the agency's inspector, he said, “We found vehicles that were assigned to North Texas in South Texas, we found vehicles assigned to East Texas in West Texas.
“With those vehicles, they always have flown by the seat of their pants. And it gets looser the higher up you go.”
Annie Daniel contributed to this report.
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