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Texas railroad commissioner wants AG to weigh in on board chair's actions

Two days after Texas Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton and the board's chair, Christi Craddick, clashed publicly at a state meeting, Sitton is asking Attorney General Ken Paxton to weigh in on his colleague's actions.

Texas Railroad Commissioners Christi Craddick, center, and Ryan Sitton, right, during a Sunset Advisory Committee hearing on Aug. 22, 2016.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with a statement from Railroad Commissioner Wayne Christian.

Two days after Texas Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton and the board's chair, Christi Craddickclashed publicly at a state meeting, Sitton is asking Attorney General Ken Paxton to weigh in on his colleague's actions. And Craddick is accusing Sitton of seeking "an opportunity for political gain." 

In a tense exchange Tuesday that was captured on camera, Sitton accused Craddick of trying to oust the agency's executive director, Kimberly Corley, without consulting him or the commission's third member. "This isn't a dictatorship," Sitton snapped at Craddick during the exchange. 

In a statement Thursday, Craddick acknowledged she "had a private conversation with the executive director regarding this matter."

She said the conversation with Corley "took place under the advisement of counsel and was compliant with all applicable law." She said she would discuss the matter further in an upcoming meeting and that "the agency needed to move in a different direction." 

In a letter to Paxton Thursday, Sitton indicated that Corley had resigned and asked for an opinion on "whether there is a limitation on the authority of one railroad commissioner to act unilaterally to terminate the agency’s executive director or other employees." (The agency itself has not confirmed Corley's resignation.) 

"The purpose of this request is not to disparage anyone or cast blame. My purpose is to understand the appropriate process and procedure for handling employee-related matters going forward," Sitton wrote. "... Does the full commission have to vote to terminate the executive director under the administrative laws of the state of Texas which govern the Railroad Commission?" 

Sitton wrote that Craddick, Corley and two attorneys from the agency's office of general counsel met Monday afternoon — which he indicated is standard procedure when an employee is to be terminated. He added that his office had "confirmed with multiple Railroad Commission division directors that they received calls from Chairman Craddick" after that Monday meeting indicating Corley had resigned and that "one of the agency’s division directors would be the acting executive director."

Sitton said he believed Corley's access to an agency cellphone, computer and other property were cut off after the Monday meeting. "These facts make it hard to imagine she could have availed herself of the opportunity to request the type of open meeting discussion" he said is guaranteed under state statute. 

"If any one railroad commissioner can call any employee into their office at any time and give them a 'choice' of 'resign or you’ll be fired,' this deficiency must be addressed," Sitton wrote. 

Jared Craighead, a Sitton spokesman, said his office had no comment beyond what was included in the request of Paxton. Craddick, in her statement, said, "I went about this in a way that put the commission first and was considerate to our executive director and our employees. I think it’s unfortunate that a commissioner has used this situation as an opportunity for political gain."

Railroad Commissioner Wayne Christian said in a statement that he prioritizes transparency and will "work to ensure our agency operates at the highest standard legally and morally."

In his letter, Sitton asked Paxton to weigh in on five questions, including if Craddick could fire Corley – or appoint an acting replacement — without input from the other two commissioners, and whether offering an "employee the 'choice' of resigning or being fired constitute[d] termination." 

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State government Christi Craddick Ken Paxton Texas Railroad Commission