@NCCapitol

Tillis defends severance payments for disgraced staffers

Posted May 17, 2012 7:40 p.m. EDT
Updated May 18, 2012 6:24 a.m. EDT

NC Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis on Thursday defended more than $19,000 in severance pay he ordered for two staffers who departed amidst a sex scandal.

Tillis’s former Chief of Staff Charles Thomas left the office at the end of April, after a videotape by a private investigator showed him in a romantic relationship with Jessi Hayes, a lobbyist for the NC Home Builders Association. Both Thomas and Hayes are married, and both were left jobless by the scandal.

According to records from the General Assembly controller’s office, Thomas’s salary was $150,000. On Friday, he was paid $12,500 “In Lieu of Notice,” as well as $9,338.94 in unused vacation time.

Payment for unused vacation time is standard for state employees who resign. But “Payment in Lieu of Notice” is not. Legislative employees like Thomas are “EPA” – exempt from the State Personnel Act – and can be fired at will with no notice.

Less than a week later, Tillis’s former policy advisor Amy Hobbs also left the office after the same videotape exposed her relationship with lobbyist Dean Plunkett. Plunkett is also married. Tillis says Hobbs is a “single mother.”

Records from the controller’s office show Hobbs’s salary in Tillis’s office was $82,000. She was paid $6,833.33 “In Lieu of Notice” and $4,632.20 in unused vacation time.

Tillis: “It’s fair”

The Speaker’s critics were quick to point out that thousands of state workers who lost jobs due to budget cuts had family obligations, too, but received no severance pay.

But Tillis insisted Thursday the payouts were “fair.”

“There was about 2 weeks notice you would normally give in a resignation. I told them they would need to sever on the day they provided it. And then there were ten other days," Tillis told reporters. "But in my opinion, given the broader context, I do believe it's fair, and I've outlined that in the statement.”

Tillis issued the following statement shortly before he finally spoke to reporters camped out outside his office for hours.

“In December of 2010 and January of 2011, Charles Thomas worked without pay and did not accept the State Health Plan benefits for himself or his family during his tenure as Chief of Staff. Amy Hobbs also worked without pay in January of 2011. They both accepted salaries below that of their peers in state government for a period of three months in early 2011 and were instrumental in overseeing the most time-efficient long session in modern history, saving thousands of taxpayer dollars.

“I accepted their resignations because their personal choices were not acceptable in my office. I recognized that their jobs and careers were forever affected by their choices, and that serious family obligations still existed for each of them. I stand by my decision to accept their resignation while recognizing the difficult transition period they are now entering.”

Hobbs and Thomas were among several Tillis staffers given large pay raises last spring. In Thomas’s case, the raise was 30%. At the time, Tillis said he had hired the staffers at probationary wages, raising their salaries to the “full” level after three months of satisfactory performance.

There was no notation of any such plan in the publicly available hiring documents for any of those employees. Probationary wages are not sanctioned by the state personnel act, either.

Democrats: “Slap in the face”

The NC Democratic Party, still dealing with the fallout from its own sexual harassment scandal at party headquarters, called for Tillis to reimburse the state for the severance payments from his campaign funds.

"Clearly Thom Tillis has a serious problem with his priorities. For Tillis to slash funding for public schools and lay off thousands of educators and then turn around and give his disgraced former staffers cash payments using taxpayer money is a slap in the face to the people of North Carolina,” said NCDP spokesman Walton Robinson in a statement today.

“We are calling on Thom Tillis to immediately reimburse the state of North Carolina for the total cost of these inappropriate golden parachute payments for his former staffers. Clearly, his campaign promises about eliminating wasteful spending were nothing more than cheap political rhetoric," Robinson added.

Tillis’s spokesman Jordan Shaw did not respond to a request for comment on the call for reimbursement.

Tillis said this afternoon he still has the support of his caucus.