Speaker’s staffers receive a month of pay after resignations

acurliss@newsobserver.com May 17, 2012 

State House Speaker Thom Tillis authorized payments equal to a month’s salary for two high-level staffers after they resigned because of inappropriate relationships with lobbyists.

The payments total a combined $19,333 to Tillis’ former chief of staff and his former policy adviser. Tillis said Wednesday the payments were made to help each staffer after they were no longer working for the state.

Tillis’ office also offered a justification for the payments that is an entry from the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, which in turn cites an employment law from the United Kingdom. The U.K. law, passed in 1996, says that workers are owed “pay in lieu of notice” if an employee is terminated without being given a minimum notice of one week.

Under North Carolina law and rules, however, high-ranking legislative employees are exempt from state personnel laws and generally work “at will,” meaning they can be dismissed for no reason and without severance.

Under state rules for most rank-and-file state workers, career employees who are dismissed for “unsatisfactory job performance” may receive up to two weeks’ pay instead of continuing to work after being told they will be dismissed. The decision about that pay is in the discretion of management, according to the state rules, and is “applicable only to dismissals.”

Tillis has repeatedly described the departures of both staffers as resignations offered by the employees that he accepted. Tillis told reporters this month that the relationships were “clearly inappropriate” and that laws might be needed to make sure such things don’t happen again. He had not disclosed that extra payments would be made to his former staffers.

Records show that Tillis’ former chief of staff, Charles Thomas, was paid $12,500 with a listed purpose of “pay in lieu of notice.” His annual salary was $150,000.

Tillis’ former policy adviser, Amy Hobbs, received $6,833.33 for the same purpose, according to records. Her annual salary was $82,000.

‘The human side’

Thomas’ last work day was April 27, the day after The News & Observer questioned him about his relationship with a lobbyist. Tillis told reporters later that he had heard rumors of an affair involving Thomas and that Thomas had not told him the truth about it.

Hobbs’ last work day was May 4, less than a week after she disclosed to Tillis that she had also been in an inappropriate relationship with a lobbyist.

The checks for both former employees were cut on Friday, according to the state legislative services office.

In an interview Wednesday, Thomas said he would not comment or say why he received the extra money. He referred all questions to the speaker. Hobbs could not be reached.

In a brief interview Wednesday as the legislature was about to begin its session for the year, Tillis defended the payments as part of the “human side” that takes into account families who were affected by the abrupt job losses. He said that Hobbs is a single mother.

Asked why employees who resigned would receive a month of additional pay, Tillis said: “I would hope people would think of these two who were in devastating personal situations.”

Tillis, a Republican, said that each of his employees would typically be allowed to give two weeks’ notice before departing. He said he felt that an additional two weeks of pay on top of that was acceptable.

“They could have given two weeks’ notice and so in the end, we’re talking about 10 more days,” he said.

Looking for savings?

Tom Harris, general counsel at the State Employees Association of North Carolina, said that legislative employee decisions are usually up to the lawmakers. He said that private industry standards would generally allow for two weeks’ pay in the case of a resignation, no matter the reason. State workers typically give notice of an end working date when resigning, he said, and stay on until then.

“I am not aware of any rule that addresses pay for a resignation,” Harris said.

Tillis said he did not know if other House members were aware of the payments. He said he would have told any who asked.

The Republican leader in the House, Paul “Skip” Stam of Apex, said in an interview he was unaware of the payments and could not comment. The speaker pro tem, Republican Dale Folwell of Winston-Salem, said he also was unaware.

Dan Blue, a former House speaker who is now a state senator from Raleigh, said taxpayers should not have paid the money to staffers who resigned, noting each could have been fired “for cause” with no pay over the relationships.

“The speaker is always talking about how every dollar should be saved,” said Blue, a Democrat. “This would have been an area for that.”

Curliss: 919-829-4840

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