The chairman of the Texas House committee whose employment practices helped trigger an ongoing investigation into so-called ghost employees -- full-time, low-pay employees who are seldom seen at work -- appointed a special subcommittee Monday to investigate the issue.
The surprise move was quickly criticized as overstepping the authority of the committee and having the potential to compromise the criminal investigation by the Travis County district attorney's office. Under state law, people who testify or provide evidence for a legislative inquiry can receive immunity from prosecution for misdeeds. So, if the committee investigates itself, its members could derail any case by prosecutors.
House Civil Practices Committee Chairman Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, said he made the move in response to disclosures by the American-Statesman that some legislative staffers were classified as full-time employees even though they worked only a few hours a month -- including Cook's committee law clerk, who lives and works in Denver.
Cook and other House members have insisted that there is nothing wrong with the practice of hiring part-time workers and putting them on the payroll as full time so they can receive benefits. They say the use of what they call "on-call" employees has been going on for years.
Cook said his committee's investigation, which will be led by state Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, will "explore employment law as it relates to the House and House rules."
"Though I firmly believe the agenda behind these inquiries is political and in my case, in retaliation to my challenging the speaker ... I also feel the ethical and legal questions posed as to the benefit status of state employees must receive fair scrutiny rather than witch-hunts in the press," Cook said in announcing the inquiry during a committee meeting.
Cook has said he will challenge House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, for his leadership post, as have several other House members.
Craddick called Cook's decision to launch an investigation "inappropriate."