Houston Chronicle Gets It Wrong Again

Over the weekend, the Houston Chronicle’s Brian Rosenthal published allegations regarding how the Texas General Land Office deals with employees separated from the agency. He and his editors evidently believe that they have a gotcha story.

They do not.

Rosenthal makes two major claims: That the Land Office has spent $1 million to keep former employees from suing, and that this action is somehow illegal. Neither of his claims is true.

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush is making tough decisions for the benefit of the people of Texas. Commissioner Bush is improving GLO operations. Under Commissioner Bush’s tenure, the Land Office is on pace for a record number of veterans home loans and generating robust revenue for the school children of Texas, even in an adverse energy market. He is accomplishing this while reducing the GLO’s staffing by about 10 percent and adjusting its organization to meet current needs, anticipate the future and protect Texas taxpayers from frivolous lawsuits. The Land Office is operating more like a business, which is what Texans elected Commissioner Bush to do.

Brian Rosenthal is a clickbait reporter, but that shouldn’t be allowed by him or his editors to cause him to fail in the basic duties of his job. Instead of reporting fairly he cherry picks among facts and routinely hand picks “experts” who will tell him what he wants to hear, enabling him to report what he wants to report.

Rosenthal Numbers Way Off

First, we’ll deal with his numbers. He’s off. Way off. Rosenthal alleges 40 separation agreements, costing $655,000, and then rounds that number up to one million dollars. In what mathematical universe is it acceptable to round up by more than 25% just to land on a headline-grabbing number?

Rosenthal’s numbers are wildly off. There have actually been 26 separation agreements under Commissioner Bush’s tenure. Cost: $383,074.12 in gross salaries. That’s about half the number Rosenthal reported, and well under the million that he leaped up to. Rosenthal conflates terminations with voluntary separations and retirements, and conflates emergency leave with separation, and does not bother himself to understand the differences and why it matters. He also conflates salary numbers with vacation time accrued, which state agencies have no choice but to allow. It’s employment law. Rosenthal has a habit of taking any number that he cannot readily explain and jumping to the absolute worst conclusion. Then he finds an “expert,” tells them his take, and seeks comment. That is not journalism. It is dishonest.

Why These Agreements Benefit Texas

As for the legality of separation agreements, two attorney general opinions (Opinion No H-786 from February 24, 1976 and Opinion No. H-1186 from June 17, 1978) speak to the authority of executives when setting policies for state employees. The Land Office established clear and consistent policies as these opinions specify. Its actions have been consistent and fair. They have also been wise. Just one frivolous lawsuit could cost the Land Office, and therefore Texas taxpayers, far more than has been used in all of the past year’s separation agreements combined. Voters want state government to operate more like businesses do. These separation agreements, as even Rosenthal notes, are consistent with how businesses routinely handle separations. They save the state enormous amounts of money while being fair to separated employees. According to Thompson Reuters Employment Practice Liability: Jury Award Trends and Statistics (2013 edition), the median judgment in employment lawsuits is $200,000 not including attorney fees. Further, employers end up paying out more than $500,000 in 25% of cases. The Land Office has overseen more than 100 departures in addition to the 26 separations with zero lawsuits during Commissioner Bush’s tenure. The Land Office looks forward to working with the Legislature in the 2017 session to establish any needed guidelines for separating employees.

Added to Rosenthal’s dubious reporting, a young reporter with the Dallas Morning News wrote her story based entirely on his story. She didn’t even bother reaching out to our office to see if we would be refuting it. That’s also not journalism. More reporters are committing “not-journalism” by following Rosenthal instead of checking facts for themselves.

Emergency Leave & Vacation Time

In his story, Rosenthal brings up emergency leave, which is completely irrelevant to Land Office separation practice. Emergency leave is only granted in emergency circumstances at the GLO.

Rosenthal also reports: “The ex-staffers did not have to use vacation time and, in fact, continued to accrue more time for as long as they were on the payroll.” That is 100% false. Rosenthal adds that made-up cost into his overall fictional number.

A History of False Reporting

This isn’t the first time Rosenthal has egregiously misreported from GLO records. Last year, he wrote up a near libelous piece regarding Commissioner Bush’s time in and out of the office. He got fact-checked by a more capable reporter, and was found to have distorted his entire report to create a narrative that the facts did not and do not support. We tried to work with him on the actual facts at that time, but he chose to make things up instead. Surprise, surprise. Rosenthal and his newspaper have abandoned factual reporting for clickbait.

Bryan Preston
Director of Communications
Texas General Land Office