Skip to main content

"Poison is in the water": Internal strife plagues billion-dollar Texas Facilities Commission

Documents and interviews with people who work at the Texas Facilities Commission portray an agency gripped by internal dysfunction, complaints of special treatment and fears that major building initiatives are falling prey to petty squabbles.

Texas Facilities Commission Executive Director Harvey Hilderbran (left) and agency Chairman Robert D. Thomas.

Insecure. Insubordinate. Shameful.

Those aren’t even the worst slaps delivered to former state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, now director of the billion-dollar agency that builds and maintains state office buildings. 

Here are a few more choice words and phrases being applied to Hilderbran by two of his own superiors — political appointees who oversee the Texas Facilities Commission: “Duplicity and lying;” “typical politician looking to blame others;” “leadership abdication.”

The descriptions were found among hundreds of pages of records provided to The Texas Tribune as part of a months-long investigation of the agency, which manages the facilities of more than 100 state agencies and is responsible for the construction of new state buildings, including a planned revamp of the Capitol complex.

Documents and interviews with people who work there portray an agency gripped by internal dysfunction, complaints of special treatment — including big salary increases — for Hilderbran and his confidantes, hostility directed at anyone who dares to buck him and fears that major building initiatives pushed by Gov. Greg Abbott and other state leaders are falling prey to petty squabbles.  

In an effort to dial back the tension earlier this year, the commission spent about $5,500 to get “personnel relationship training” from outside consultant DeDe Church & Associates — derisively referred to in emails as “marriage counseling” — but internal correspondence shows relations have continued to deteriorate.

In a lengthy written statement sent to The Texas Tribune, Hilderbran expressed pride at his accomplishments as executive director and said many of the problems discussed in the internal records had already been fixed.

“It would be a shame for personality issues to taint the good work of this agency,” he said. “I appreciate the support I have from Commissioners and remain committed to working effectively with everyone.”

Commissioner Joe Slovacek, an appointee of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and a vocal critic of Hilderbran, questioned the need for expensive outside help and called on the director to “quit acting like a third-grade little girl” and to stop “whisper campaigns” meant to sow dissent among the oversight board.

In an August email to Hilderbran, commission Chairman Robert Thomas and another commissioner, Slovacek said that whenever he leaves the board “someone else can deal with the inmates in the asylum. I am sorry the poison is in the water.”  

Slovacek referred the Tribune to Thomas for questions about the commission.

“I want everybody to do their jobs,” Thomas said. “I want them to be confident and capable. I want them to be, as the governor says, effective, efficient, accountable and transparent.” He declined to elaborate.

Three commissioners who have sided with Hilderbran in public meetings — Betty Reinbeck, Jack Perry and Patti Jones — declined comment. Commissioner William Darby, who has not regularly attended board meetings, did not respond to requests for comment.

“I now have SERIOUS reservations"

Scandal erupted only a few months after Hilderbran was hired to run the Texas Facilities Commission in early 2015. Hilderbran and others blamed the problems on his predecessor, former state Rep. Terry Keel.

An unflattering internal audit said the agency used hiring and promotion practices that ranged from sloppy to unfair when Keel was executive director. Now a top aide to Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, Keel noted the audit was conducted long after he left the agency and blamed the controversy on a commission member who didn’t like his reforms.

“I had the full support of that whole commission,” Keel said. “When I left, I was in good standing, and I did a lot to clean up the corruption over there.”

But the Tribune’s investigation shows problems have persisted and new ones have sprouted since Hilderbran took the reins.

In one email dated July 28, 2017, Thomas, an Abbott appointee, complained that Hilderbran was dragging his feet over the hiring of a chief operations officer that some commissioners describe as key to righting the ship at the agency.

“I now have SERIOUS reservations that Harvey will allow that person to effectuate the change necessary (accountability, oversight, metric driven management, etc.) to prevent this Titanic from smashing into the iceberg,” Thomas wrote in the email. “One does not need to be an attorney or have an MBA to know that where there is smoke, there is fire. And the smoke is getting very thick.”

Mike Novak, vice chair of the commission, said Hilderbran understood politics well but didn’t have experience running a large organization and needed the kind of help an operations chief could bring. But Novak said Hilderbran “started backpedalling” after initially agreeing to fill the position.

“After that, I’m going, ‘Okay Harvey, I’m trying to help you and you didn’t listen. Now you’ve got a mess over there.’ It’s a leadership issue,” Novak said.

Weeks after Novak, Slovacek and Thomas complained about Hilderbran’s hot-and-cold approach to hiring a COO, Hilderbran promised to do so if ordered to by the commissioners. But he said he was “perplexed” by the criticism because the commissioners had not reached a consensus on whether filling the position was necessary.

“Clearly, there has been a misunderstanding or miscommunication about my views on creating a new position of COO at TFC,” he wrote, adding that hiring a new top-level employee would cut into the agency’s ability to provide bonuses to other staff.  

Over the past few months, Thomas and other Hilderbran critics have expressed growing alarm and frustration at what they say is the director’s attempts to quash internal dissent, his refusal to let internal auditors do their work and his failures to rein in strife that could derail high-profile construction and maintenance projects.

In a June email to commissioners, Thomas said if they didn’t fix the problems, they wouldn’t be able to blame them on predecessors and claim “it didn’t happen on my watch.”

Fear in the ranks

In his statement to the Tribune, Hilderbran said employee morale had improved under his leadership. He also touted what he saw as a string of successes, including reducing a backlog of deferred maintenance on state buildings.

However, text messages and emails exchanged among commissioners and agency staffers indicate that employees are afraid of Hilderbran’s wrath and frustrated by his heavy-handed management style and controlling behavior.

Gerard Edimo, a high-ranking official at the commission, wrote what he thought was a private text message to Thomas, the chairman. Referring to Hilderbran by his initials, “HH,” Edimo asked Thomas multiple times to delete the message for fear that the director would retaliate against him.

“Other commissioners cannot be aware of my text because it will surely trickle down to HH,” Edimo wrote in September 2016. “HH is more concerned about (1) how to defeat you and (2) how to limit the information that management provides to you ... The same lack of leadership could derail our P3 initiatives.”

“Please Sir,” Edimo concluded, “this text is only for your eyes. Please delete after reading.”

Edimo declined an interview request but sent a written statement saying that since he’d sent the message his “perception has evolved.”

“The assessment I made in that text message is categorically misinformed,” he wrote.

The P3 initiative, which stands for “public private partnership,” is a big priority for Abbott, the Republican governor, according to internal documents. Thomas confirmed that he provided briefing papers to the governor’s office warning that what he called Hilderbran’s mismanagement of the agency threatened the viability of TFC’s infrastructure-building partnerships with private companies.

Samuel Franco, director of the TFC’s center for alternative finance and procurement, which oversees the P3 program, texted Thomas in June of this year to alert the chairman that Hilderbran forbade him from sending out information to the other commissioners or to internal P3 working groups without his approval.

“He also mentioned that the commissioners could not hire or fire me, only he could and that he was about ready to clean house and fire about five people who are not ‘in line’ with him,” Franco wrote. “Sadly it’s part of his need to always be in control of everything. Classic politician move.”

Similar criticisms came from an external consultant who concluded that Hilderbran attempted to stifle criticism and obstruct the work of internal auditors.

An August 2017 quality assurance report from the consultant said the agency’s Office of Internal Audit, or OIA, “is not getting the cooperation it needs from agency management, and the Commission is not providing the OIA the support it needs to overcome this handicap.”

“The [executive director’s] strategy appears to be, ‘When you don't like the message, attack and discredit the messenger,’” the consultant wrote. “This attitude appears to be at the root of many of the negative observations expressed in the report.”

Hilderbran said he told the external consultant at the time that he disagreed strongly with the findings.

Thomas, the chairman, said he informed Abbott’s office earlier this year that Hilderbran’s penchant for “pitting employees against each other and ferreting out any who speak to commissioners” raised the prospect of legal liability for the TFC.

Ciara Matthews, a spokesperson for Abbott, said the governor is “concerned about the current state of affairs at the Facilities Commission.”

“As he’s done with other agencies when problems arise,” Matthews said, “the Governor will take the appropriate action to redirect the agency to getting back to its core mission and meet the needs of state government."

Salary increases

Questions have also been raised about bonuses and salary increases Hilderbran has awarded to employees.

An anonymous complaint sent to the State Auditor’s Office claimed that the bonuses and salary increases awarded at Hilderbran’s discretion “are not based on performance, but on relationships with” him. TFC General Counsel Kay Molina responded that the anonymous complaint was without merit. The auditor's office has not conducted an audit of the issue.  

According to state comptroller records, Hilderbran’s executive assistant, Debbie Van Bibber, and government relations specialist Maya Ingram both received double-digit pay increases. Van Bibber’s salary went from $55,000 to $72,000 in 2015; Ingram’s pay increased from $58,000 to $78,000 in that same time period. Ingram recently left the agency.

William Monroe, the agency's chief financial officer, got a $10,000 bonus and a $22,000 salary bump – from $118,000 to $140,000 annually – around May 2016. Molina, the agency’s general counsel, got a $6,000 bonus in August 2015 and her annual salary went up $8,200, to a total of $140,000 last year.

This year Hilderbran himself got a $7,158 raise — to a total of $177,982 — from the Texas Legislature, a pay bump that later received the commission’s blessing. Slovacek cast the lone “no” vote.

Hilderbran said he never asked the Legislature or the commission for an increase and told the Tribune last week he would not accept it.

But he said the staff raises were needed to ensure employee retention and equity among similarly ranked positions.

“Our agency mission is being carried out in compliance with the law and with state and agency policies and procedures — and there is nothing to indicate otherwise,” he said.

See Hilderbran's full statement, and select emails from Hilderbran and commissioners, here. 

Texans need truth. Help us report it.

Support independent Texas news

Become a member. Join today.

Donate now

Explore related story topics

State government