Politics & Government

Former Moore aide was paid $70,000 after he left. He now says it was a mistake.

Records released to The News & Observer show that a former top aide to House Speaker Tim Moore left his job but continued to be paid for several months by using sick leave, a practice not provided for under state personnel policies.

As a result, the records show Mitch Gillespie received roughly $70,000 in sick leave, which he now says was based on a misunderstanding. The sick leave allowed him to push back his retirement date to the beginning of this year, instead of April 2018 when he stopped working.

Gillespie wouldn’t say whether he would repay any or all of the money. The State Treasurer’s office, which manages the pension system, is looking into his pay leading up to his retirement and it is in settlement talks with Gillespie.

Gillespie, 59, a former Republican lawmaker from McDowell County, had not responded to repeated N&O requests about how he collected pay for eight months after he stopped working — but before he retired. The N&O published a story about the retirement on Jan. 24.

A 2012 photo shows then-Republican Rep. Mitch Gillespie reading amendments to a bill on the floor of the House. News & Observer file photo

After The N&O obtained his pay records and informed him in a phone message Thursday, Gillespie called back and said that he had received incorrect information allowing him to burn off his sick leave. He then released a letter from Carolyn Hunt, the legislature’s human resources director, in which she said there was a “miscommunication by my staff regarding the appropriate use of sick leave.”

“I want to apologize for the advice my staff provided to you,” Hunt wrote to Gillespie in the Jan. 28 letter. “This instance has caused us to initiate a review of NCGA leave policies and how my staff advises employees nearing retirement.”

Gillespie said the letter “vindicates me, that I’ve done nothing wrong.”

He also said Moore played no role in the sick leave payout. Frank Lester, a spokesman for State Treasurer Dale Folwell, who released the pay information in response to a public records request from the N&O, said sick leave requires the approval of Moore or his chief of staff.

No comment on chicken plant

During Gillespie’s time in the speaker’s office, he had twice involved himself in Moore’s private matters. In 2016, Gillespie had done some work on Moore’s Raleigh condo, and had inquired about state environmental officials handling underground tank pollution on a former chicken plant property Moore co-owned. (Moore has said he had not requested Gillespie’s help in either instance.)

His intervention in the underground tank issue has prompted a complaint by a Washington, D.C.-based government watchdog group. He declined to talk about it.

“If I get subpoenaed I’d be more than happy to discuss anything,” he said. “But I don’t see that as an issue.”

Gillespie declined to provide any written or electronic communications that show Hunt’s staff had told him last year he could burn sick leave. He also wouldn’t name anyone on Hunt’s staff who told him he could.

Efforts by phone and email to reach Hunt, her boss and Legislative Services Officer Paul Coble, and Moore’s staff to explain the letter and the pay records were unsuccessful. None of the three has responded to numerous phone and email requests over the past two weeks to provide records and pay policies. A News & Observer reporter also visited Coble and Moore’s offices seeking information.

Legislative staff handbooks obtained by the N&O do not provide for employees to burn sick leave or cash it out upon retiring. 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.”

Any accrued sick leave upon retirement can be added onto the length of state workers’ employment as part of setting their pensions.

Employees can roll over unused vacation to the following year, but that is maxed out at 240 hours, or six weeks. Anything beyond that amount is converted to sick leave. As a result, the most that veteran employees can typically cash out upon retiring is the 240 hours they accrued from prior years, plus vacation owed in the current year. Taken together, that amounts to roughly three months.

Gillespie’s pay records show that even while he used his sick leave after he left his job, he accrued even more because he was still a state employee, eligible for eight additional hours each month. The records show he received eight additional sick days between April and the end of the year.

Gillespie had not taken a sick day in his tenure with the speaker’s office until April 23, when he began using it nearly every work day until Nov. 16. At that point he started using vacation time. He used two more sick days near the end of the year.

Cashed out vacation time

Gillespie began working for Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, on Jan. 26, 2015, after two years in the Department of Environmental Quality as an assistant secretary under then-Gov. Pat McCrory, a Charlotte Republican. Gillespie moved over to Moore’s office shortly after he was demoted to a regional position.

Gillespie took one vacation day while working for Moore, the records show, allowing him to roll over the maximum vacation leave and build up his sick leave. He also accrued another 139 hours of vacation leave after he had stopped working. By burning sick leave, Gillespie was able to protect much of that accrued vacation time, cashing out seven weeks upon retirement, or roughly $18,000, the records show.

Lester, the state treasurer’s spokesman, said staff requested the breakdown of Gillespie’s time between “when we understood he retired (April 2018), to the end of the year.” Hunt sent the records to them on Jan. 18.

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Gillespie was a state legislator for 14 years before joining McCrory’s staff in 2013. He had served on the House Appropriations Committee, which often has to decide pay and benefits for state employees.

In the interview, Gillespie wouldn’t name any state employees who had been allowed to use sick leave before retiring. He said in years past there may have been a policy that allowed sick leave to be paid out.

Not used by Berger’s staff

Bill D’Elia, a spokesman for Senate leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican, said in an email last week that Berger’s staff abides by the legislative employee handbook. None who have left have burned up or cashed out sick leave, D’Elia said.

Hunt’s letter suggested Gillespie also may have gotten bad information from a former employee of the treasurer’s office that may have “compounded a misunderstanding of information you received from my staff.”

Moore told an N&O reporter last week that he wasn’t involved in Gillespie’s retirement matters. He didn’t provide specifics, and pointed to human resources and the state treasurer.

“My office has been bypassed,” he said. “But of course we’re hearing information there that tends to show, from what I’ve heard, that Mr. Gillespie simply relied on information that he had been given. But I’ll let them speak to that, because we’re not really in the loop on it 100 percent.”

Gillespie said he didn’t discuss sick leave policy with the former treasurer’s employee.

Frank Lester, the spokesman for State Treasurer Folwell, said no one in his office provided Gillespie with “any interpretive guidance that allowed him to leave work in April.”

“The department regularly relies on employing units to correctly administer their own leave policies and would only examine the use of leave in exceptional circumstances where questions arise,” Lester said.

Gillespie sought to start collecting his pension last month, but that hasn’t happened. He said he is close to reaching a settlement with the treasurer’s office and human resources about his retirement.

He confirmed that he is not returning to work.

“I’m done with Raleigh,” he said.

Staff writer Craig Jarvis contributed to this report.

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Dan Kane began working for The News & Observer in 1997. He covered local government, higher education and the state legislature before joining the investigative team in 2009.