Last April, state lawmakers, legislative staff and lobbyists used Facebook and Twitter to wish Mitch Gillespie, a senior policy adviser for House Speaker Tim Moore, a happy retirement.
“There is a huge Void in Raleigh today created by the retirement of Mitch Gillespie,” tweeted Rep. John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican, on April 23. “Gonna take quite a long while to fill, if that’s even possible. Best to you Mitch. Go live it, you earned it.”
By then, Gillespie had spent 14 years as a state lawmaker, followed by two years as an assistant Department of Environmental Quality secretary and a little more than three years advising Moore on environmental issues. Only the last two jobs were full time.
But after Gillespie, 59, of McDowell County, left the legislature in April, he continued to receive his paycheck. All told, he collected $81,700 in pay, state records show, and then he reported he was owed another $12,400 in unused leave. Those records show his last day as an employee was Dec. 31, 2018.
Today, Moore’s staff and the legislature’s human resources director are offering little explanation as to how an employee who worked full-time for about five years could accrue enough leave time to receive $94,100 after he stopped working. Lawmakers do not receive paid vacations and cannot accrue leave.
That amount of leave perplexed some familiar with state policies for employees. Ardis Watkins, the legislative affairs director for the State Employees Association of North Carolina, which mainly represents rank-and-file workers, said she was unaware of any employee being able to accrue that much leave before retiring. The typical accrual for veteran employees is roughly three months, she said, and that includes correction officers at the state’s often understaffed prisons.
“I haven’t heard of anything like eight months,” she said. “Not with any of our members.”
The News & Observer requested a detailed explanation of when Gillespie retired and how much leave he had accrued. In response, Joseph Kyzer, Moore’s spokesman, offered a short emailed statement last week:
“All permanent state employees in the General Assembly are eligible to use earned benefits like accrued vacation and sick leave prior to their formal retirement,” Kyzer wrote.
The N&O pressed for more information. Kyzer sent a second email that included a statement from Carolyn Hunt, the legislature’s human resources director, in which she said Gillespie’s retirement was compliant with legislative policy and that he “properly documented his use of vacation, sick, bonus, special, and community service leave.”
”The records show he is in compliance,” Hunt wrote. “Mr. Gillespie received no special considerations and the information provided by the General Assembly is fully accurate and documented in compliance with our general standards and procedures.”
The statement did not explain how much leave Gillespie had accrued by the time he stopped working and how he had used it.
While on Moore’s staff, Gillespie twice drew headlines for taking care of private matters for his boss. In 2016, The N&O reported his home improvement work on Moore’s Raleigh condo that included replacing a range hood and taking down two bathroom mirrors.
That same year, The N&O reported earlier this month, Gillespie had made inquiries to DEQ staff about the status of approvals for the cleanup of two underground tanks on a closed chicken plant in Siler City that Moore co-owned. Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, and his partners in Southeast Land Holdings were looking to sell the plant at the time, and secured a buyer in Mountaire Farms two months later.
Gillespie’s interactions with DEQ are now the subject of a complaint to the state ethics board filed by a Washington, D.C.,-based government watchdog, the Campaign for Accountability.
In both cases, Moore said he wasn’t aware of Gillespie’s efforts on his behalf.
Efforts to reach Gillespie through a call to his home and a call and text to his cell phone were unsuccessful.
Open government advocates said the speaker’s office needs to provide a detailed explanation of Gillespie’s pay and retirement.
“It sounds like there’s a significant discrepancy here that, if they care at all about transparency with the general public, they need to clarify,” said Jonathan Jones, director of the Open Government Coalition and Sunshine Center at Elon University.
Jane Pinsky, director of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform, said: “We hire the legislators to legislate and we trust them with our money and they should be willing to explain to any and all of us exactly how they use it.”
The speaker’s office made available pay records for Gillespie that The N&O could review, but not copy. The records show his last work day as Dec. 31. They also show that he accrued nearly six weeks of vacation, five weeks of sick leave and a week of bonus leave from his two years at DEQ.
Gillespie’s Facebook page shows that on April 18, T. Jerry Williams, a longtime lobbyist and friend, paid tribute to him on what Williams reported was Gillespie’s last day.
“I hate to see him leave the Legislative Building and the Speaker’s staff,” Williams wrote.
On June 6, a friend wrote on Gillespie’s Facebook page: “A few weeks ago I saw you in Raleigh. Are you back???”
Gillespie responded: “Retired!”
Webpage captures by Internet Archive show Gillespie’s name had been removed from the speaker’s staff by mid-August.
On Jan. 1, he posted a status change on Facebook that said he was retired.
The N&O requested copies of employee policies from Hunt and her boss, Paul Coble, the legislative services officer. None were provided.
Employee handbooks the N&O obtained for General Assembly staff say that employees can earn as many as 26 vacation days per year, but they can roll over no more than six weeks’ worth from one year to the next. Gillespie’s legislative experience would have earned him a larger number of vacation days closer to that maximum each year. But any unused vacation time beyond six weeks is converted to sick leave.
Hunt said in an interview last week that legislative employees can’t cash out sick leave upon retirement. The employee handbook says sick leave is “intended as insurance against loss of earnings due to personal illness or injury that prevents an employee from performing his/her usual duties.”
While unused sick leave can’t be paid out, that time accrued can be added onto the length of state workers’ employment as part of setting their pensions.
State treasurer’s records also show Gillespie receiving salary through the end of the year. The treasurer’s office manages pension funds for state and local employees, and collects pay information so it can accurately calculate what their pensions should be.
Gillespie received $121,950 in pay for 2018, the state treasurer’s records show. Pay records at Hunt’s office showed Gillespie’s annual salary increased from $105,545 in the first six months of 2018 to $107,656 in the latter half.
Frank Lester, a spokesman for the treasurer’s office, said state law prevents him from discussing whether Gillespie is in the process of retiring. He has yet to start collecting a pension.