Allegation of "burrowing" is at the heart of request for investigation into Ag Department

06/08/2011 03:41 PM

A potential state hiring investigation will hinge on whether the Department of Agriculture rigged a hiring process to allow two appointees to “burrow” into $80,000-a-year “protected” merit positions, as alleged in filings with the state Personnel Board.

Vice chairman of the Personnel Board, Larry Gillis has requested the board start an investigation into the hiring of Danita Fentress-Laird and Kathryn Willis. The board will take up the issue at its meeting Friday.

They moved from appointed jobs as division directors into posts of assistant directors that are protected by state merit laws so that they cannot be easily fired by a new administration. The Agriculture Department created those positions at the end of 2010.

Depending on what the Personnel Board decides, this could become a political distraction for Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer, who is running for lieutenant governor on the Republican ticket with Senate President David Williams.

Nicole Liberto, general counsel for the Department of Agriculture, responded to Gillis’ request by saying the department complied with a Personnel Cabinet investigation and were cleared of any wrongdoing.

Liberto will argue at Friday’s meeting against an investigation.

But the Personnel Cabinet indicated in a Dec. 27, 2010, letter that the individual moves appeared appropriate but raised questions when “taken in totality.”

Gillis, a current assistant director at the Personnel Cabinet, applied for both positions in question — the assistant director of personnel and budget and assistant director of information technology in the Department of Agriculture.

He’s asking for the Personnel Board to vacate the two assistant director positions if an investigation finds wrongdoing. But he said in his filings to the Personnel Board that he would not re-apply for either position if they are vacated. He said he just wants ensure the integrity of the hiring process.

“Why in the world would you establish two Assistant Director positions, indicate that they will be assisting the Division Director, have them supervising all the current employees that were supervised by the Division Directors and have them report to the Executive Director?” Gillis asked in his request for the investigation. “This adds to the perceived notion of burrowing Ms. Fentress-Laird and Ms. Willis into the merit system.”

Switching Fentress-Laird and Willis from political posts to “merit” positions would allow them protection from a new agriculture commissioner cleaning out current Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer’s staff at the beginning of 2012, Gillis said in his filings.

“Rather it would seem that the Assistant Director positions were established in order to move the Division Directors into them, with no intention of backfilling the Division Directors,” Gillis says in his request. “By doing this, the incumbents would retain their current duties but gain merit status. To this day, the Division Director positions have not been filled.”

Gillis wrote that merit positions are normally effective on the 1st or 16th of every month. In his filing, Gillis said the Department of Agriculture entered personnel actions on Dec. 22, 2010, to have Fentress-Laird and Willis to resign as division directors on Dec. 26, 2011.

Then, the department hired both women as the new assistant directors on Dec. 27, 2010. That would mean both women would come off mandatory probation on Dec. 27, 2011, a few weeks before a new commissioner of agriculture would replace the term-limited current commissioner Richie Farmer.

Additionally, Gillis claims that the interview process for the two assistant directors positions weren’t honest.

He said 250 people applied for the assistant director of personnel position but only six were selected for interviews. State law requires that if five or more military veterans apply for a state position, at least five have to be interviewed. In the case of the assistant director for personnel, of the six interviewees for the positions, five were the mandatory veteran interviews and the remaining interviewee was Fentress-Laird.

Gillis said Personnel Cabinet records show 92 merit employees applied for the assistant director of personnel position, but none were selected for interviews. No other non-merit or outside applicants were considered either, outside of the veterans and Fentress-Laird, Gillis says.

For the assistant director of information technology, Gillis says Personnel cabinet records show 221 applicants, with 92 merit employees applying. In the same light, Gillis says records show only five veterans as required by law and Willis were interviewed.

Gillis alleged that the similarity between the two hirings raised a red flag. They were simultaneous processes with similar job descriptions. That indicated Department of Agriculture had already pre-selected Fentress-Laird and Willis for the assistant director positions, Gillis alleged.

“All things considered, this certainly has the appearance of pre-selection,” Gillis says. “Merit positions should never be filled by pre-selecting candidates. This goes against the very reason that we have a merit system … it would seem that Agriculture knew who they wanted and proceeded to place them in the positions.”

-Reporting by Kenny Colston

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