Nine Texas Facilities Commission employees departed after reports of agency dysfunction

Uniformed officers and what appeared to be locksmiths were spotted at the agency's Austin headquarters the day former Executive Director Harvey Hilderbran was fired in January.

A Deptartment of Public Safety officer takes a box of records from the offices of the Texas Facilities Commission on Jan. 25, 2018 after the agency's board voted to oust Executive Director Harvey Hilderbran during Thursday's meeting. Hilderbran, a former state representative, had been at the commission since 2015.   Bob Daemmrich for the Texas Tribune

Former state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran wasn’t the only person ousted from the Texas Facilities Commission in January, after a Texas Tribune investigation found the billion-dollar agency was rife with internal dysfunction due in part to Hilderbran's management style.

Eight other employees departed the agency with Hilderbran, including the commission’s general counsel, its director of operations and several other high-level staffers.

"The executive management changes do not detract from the tremendous work done on a daily basis by the amazing men and women of the Texas Facilities Commission," interim Executive Director John Raff told the Tribune in a statement after the firings. He said the departures were part of a "normal reset" that would allow the agency to "refocus and re-align in a forward-focused, collective and collaborative way."

Records obtained by the Tribune show that Hilderbran’s executive assistant, Debbie Van Bibber, resigned shortly after Hilderbran’s firing, along with General Counsel Kay Molina, the agency's director of human resources, and two other staff members.

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Operations chief Gerard Edimo and two other employees were terminated Jan. 26, the day after Hilderbran's firing. Most of the departures formally took effect between late January and mid-February, though one employee’s termination is not expected to become effective until March, according to the records.

Hilderbran said Jan. 25 that eight other people had been fired or resigned, but agency officials took two weeks to confirm the additional departures.

The commission board's vote to fire Hilderbran was a “big surprise,” Commissioner Jack Perry said at the time. “No notice whatsoever.”

In the hours that followed, the agency’s Austin headquarters were overrun with uniformed officers and what appeared to be workers changing the locks on office doors. Several employees were seen tearfully or angrily carrying their belongings to the elevator bank.

One of them, Van Bibber, told the Tribune that the day’s activities had been “bullshit," and "ruthless, manipulative on the chairman’s part and ... personal.”

The eight employees who were fired or resigned could not be reached or did not respond to requests for comment.

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"These are talented, hard-working state employees that were forced out, and they didn't deserve it," Hilderbran told the Tribune in January shortly after his departure. 

Several of the employees forced out were featured prominently in emails, text messages and other records the Tribune obtained last year as part of a months-long investigation of the commission, which manages the facilities of more than 100 state agencies and is responsible for the construction of new state buildings.

Those documents, and interviews with commission employees, chronicled complaints of special treatment at the agency, internal hostility and fears that major initiatives would be derailed by petty squabbles. 

Commission Chairman Robert Thomas suggested there were "agency-wide systemic management issues" in an April 2016 email to several members of the governor's office. The agency's audit team, Thomas wrote, had pointed out the "increased programmatic risk that exists at the agency when these types of fundamental deficiencies exist." 

"I trust that it goes without saying, but if something as fundamental as employee relations is a problem, it is hard to materially improve the operations of the agency," he wrote. 

Thomas reiterated his concern in briefing papers that he confirmed were provided to the governor's office. They cited a "culture of toxicity" at the agency, and suggested Hilderbran’s mismanagement threatened the viability of a commission initiative. "HIGH RISK," the papers said in seven separate places. 

In an email sent to agency staff the Monday after the firings, Raff said the “change is a healthy opportunity for forward thinking refocusing and positive transformation.”

“Know that this change has nothing to do with the quality of your work, or your commitment to our mission,” Raff wrote. “Rest assured that your competence, your commitment, your accountability and your confidence that you are performing your job well and with integrity, will not go unnoticed. Not by the Commissioners, me, our sister agencies, or the people for whom we work: the taxpayers of Texas.” 

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