Editor's note: This story was updated May 2 to reflect the committee's vote on Lilly's nomination.
Kevin Lilly is one step closer to becoming a commissioner at the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission — an embattled state agency that’s been in the Legislature’s crosshairs over controversial spending practices in recent months.
During a Senate Nominations Committee hearing Monday, Lilly said his most important duty, if he's confirmed by the full Senate, would be helping to replace Executive Director Sherry Cook, who last month announced she was stepping down.
“The most critical mission will be the facilitation of selecting an executive director who can take the commission’s wishes as well as the mission of the agency and apply them through his or her chain of command,” Lilly, a Houston businessman and U.S. Army veteran, told the panel.
Lilly's nomination now heads to the full Senate for a vote after the committee unanimously approved his appointment Tuesday.
Gov. Greg Abbott and state lawmakers have moved to shake up the agency after The Texas Tribune reported that Cook and other TABC top brass spent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars traveling around the country, attending liquor conferences and staying at upscale resorts in places like Hawaii.
Cook announced she'll leave her post May 23. The announcement came after House lawmakers grilled Cook and other agency leaders in a three-hour committee hearing over TABC’s spending and its failure to keep accurate records on state-owned vehicles driven by agency officials.
TABC’s three commissioners pick the agency’s executive director, and a discussion about Cook’s replacement is on the agenda for a May 23 meeting.
Lilly said his involvement in choosing the next executive director would be “critical” and suggested that the agency’s problems were fixable.
“Conferences, as a general rule, can be effective, but I also think they can be abusive,” Lilly said. “They shouldn’t be an excuse for professional vacations.”
State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, the committee chairman, said he was concerned about a lack of response from TABC commissioners as reports surfaced about the controversies.
“What will you do as a new commissioner to ensure commissioners are speaking to the Texas Legislature and representing the concerns of Texas?” Birdwell asked Lilly.
“Until I can build the trust of this Legislature, I need to have more communication than not,” Lilly said, adding he hoped to form relationships with lawmakers that enabled impromptu phone calls asking for input.
Lilly was also asked about top TABC brass getting certified as peace officers. Cook and TABC Deputy Executive Director Ed Swedberg obtained peace officer certifications, which allowed them to collect “hazardous duty pay” while receiving perks such as high-powered weapons and state take-home vehicles.
“The last thing I want to do is delegitimize law enforcement officers — boots on the ground is important ... but I don't think the executive director of TABC needs to be a peace officer," Lilly said, adding that around 220 TABC employees are peace officers.
“I’m ready to find an executive director to fill the role with great vigor and enthusiasm,” Lilly said. “I’m ready to get to work.”
Read related Tribune coverage:
Amid a controversy over travel to fancy resorts and other spending controversies, the head of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, Sherry Cook, announced she was stepping down from her job effective May 23.
For more than three hours, top TABC officials were grilled by House members for misusing state resources, taking trips to Hawaii on the taxpayers’ dime, mixing vacation with state duties, misreporting who has been assigned which state-owned vehicles, and cozying up to the very industry they’re supposed to be regulating.
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.