A TxDOT commissioner resigned in 2018. He continued drawing pay for five years.
In February 2018, Texas Department of Transportation Commissioner Victor Vandergriff resigned from his governor-appointed position, telling the public that “it was time for new blood.”
Instead of stopping his payments, the state continued to cut him a monthly paycheck — 62 paychecks in fact — totaling nearly $92,000, plus benefits over the next five years.
The state took steps to stop the payments in March after the American-Statesman asked why Vandergriff was still getting paid.
The position paid $16,300 annually to work part-time helping oversee the state agency in charge of Texas roads and highways.
Vandergriff’s abrupt exit in 2018 came a month after the Texas Tribune reported that Vandergriff had performed work as a private lobbyist during trips to Austin paid by TxDOT. Vandergriff returned some of the money to the state.
“Mr. Transportation” — that’s what a news release called him — got a new job in June 2020 as the executive director of the Tarrant Regional Transportation Coalition, a public-private partnership that champions “innovative mobility and infrastructure solutions for our area.”
But payments totaling $91,796 continued flowing to Vandergriff’s bank account – more than $1,300 a month plus at least $80 monthly in “longevity pay,” according to the Texas Comptroller’s office — even though he never attended another commission meeting after his resignation, records show. The payments also continued for three years after Vandergriff’s term expired in February 2019.
Because he remained on the books as a state employee, Vandergriff also qualified for additional years of state service to bolster his pension and was eligible for Texas-funded medical benefits. A spokeswoman for the Employee Retirement System said she could not discuss whether or not Vandergriff received any such benefits, citing confidentiality.
A Statesman investigation found Vandergriff remained on the state payroll because Gov. Greg Abbott waited five years to name his successor, which came in March amid Statesman inquiries to the state about Vandergriff, and because the Texas Constitution allows Vandergriff to remain in the position — at least on paper — until a replacement is named. The state commonly refers to those as “holdover positions.”
“It doesn’t matter that this position only pays $16,000 a year,” said Adrian Shelley, executive director of Public Citizen, a government watchdog and advocacy group. “What matters is that we take our roles seriously as government employees, and that we don’t take salaries for jobs that we aren’t doing.
“I think everybody understands that somebody who is not doing a job doesn’t deserve to be paid for that job,” he said.
Vandergriff, who was appointed to the TxDOT commission in 2013 by former Gov. Rick Perry, initially told the Statesman that he planned to issue a statement in response to multiple requests for comment.
In a later email, he wrote, “After a bit of time to reflect, I realized that there is really nothing more that I can or should add to the story. It is not my place to be involved in a post mortem discussion of what could or should have been done differently. All indications are that both TxDOT and the governor’s office are in the beginning stages of such a discussion.
“I do not expect my situation to happen again,” he added.
Abbott, TxDOT response
Andrew Mahaleris, a spokesman for Abbott, said in a statement: “The Texas Constitution provides that state officers, such as the TxDOT commissioners, serve as holdovers until their replacements are appointed and qualify for office, despite term expiration or stepping down from that role.
“The governor has directed the Texas Department of Transportation to update their compensation processes to ensure their commissioners are fulfilling their duties to the people of Texas,” the statement said.
The governor’s office did not respond to additional requests for comment, including why Abbott did not name Steven D. Alvis of Houston as Vandergriff’s successor until March 21. The Statesman sent its first request for information about Vandergriff to the state on Feb. 28. Alvis’ appointment is pending Senate approval.
TxDOT spokesman Adam Hammons said in a statement: “As directed by the governor, TxDOT leadership is reviewing the department’s procedures for the payment of compensation to commissioners and will continue to ensure that the payments are made in compliance with applicable state law.”
Neither agency would comment on whether Vandergriff should have been paid for the five years that he didn’t act as a commissioner.
Vandergriff, 65, is widely known in Texas politics, particularly in transportation circles. He grew up in the automotive industry as the grandson of North Texas auto dealer magnate Hooker Vandergriff and was the son of former Tarrant County Judge and U.S. Rep. Tom Vandergriff, who also served as Arlington mayor.
Victor Vandergriff also served as chair of the North Texas Tollway Authority and as chair of the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Board.
“Vandergriff has largely been praised as North Texas’ voice in Austin on transportation matters,” D Magazine said in a story announcing his resignation. The publication had named Vandergriff “Best Public Official” in North Texas in 2017.
TxDOT commissioner positions are among about 1,500 coveted appointments a Texas governor makes in a four-year term to boards, commissions and councils that operate and oversee government operations. Most positions are volunteer, although others carry full- or part-time salaries.
TxDOT commissioners are responsible for planning the location and construction of major highways, overseeing the operations of state roadways and awarding contracts to improve the state transportation infrastructure. The commission meets once a month in downtown Austin, and the members' six-year terms are staggered so that an appointment is generally made every two years. The governor designates one commissioner to serve as chair.
Randall Erben, a Texas constitutional law adjunct professor at the University of Texas, said the provision that has kept Vandergriff on the books as a commissioner is grounded in the necessity to keep a governing body operating with a leader at the helm.
“The way the Constitution sees it is, you can resign or your term of office can expire, but you still hold all the responsibilities and duties of the office, and you still hold all the benefits of the office,” Erben said.
He added, “The presumption is that when you resign, you are going to stay in the office and continue to show up and do the work for which you have been appointed or elected.”
In 2019, Texas lawmakers and voters approved a measure that stipulated that a person’s holdover term would end at the conclusion of the next legislative session following a vacancy. There are two exceptions: If the position does not require Senate confirmation or pays a salary; then they may continue in the position until the governor appoints someone new.
Shelley said he is troubled by the situation on two fronts: He said money spent on Vandergriff’s salary is an affront to hard-working state employees who show up to perform their jobs.
“When we pay taxes, we want that money to go to services that benefit us as Texans,” he said. “Frankly it is something that people should care about.”
Shelley said he also believes Abbott should have acted far sooner — and he questions why he didn’t.
“This should have been a priority,” he said. “This is an incredibly important post for the future of Texas. To see it go unfilled for five years is a real concern.”
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Texas DOT official Victor Vandergriff paid for 5 years after resigning