State employee’s excessive sick pay needs review

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

Six months after Republicans took control of the General Assembly in 2011, they passed a budget that eliminated 160 jobs at an agency that had long irritated industrial polluters, the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources. In addition, DENR’s Asheville office was put under special scrutiny to justify its budget because it was issuing the most notices of violations.

State Rep. Mitch Gillespie (R-McDowell) told the Smoky Mountain News at the time that, “The justification review (of the Asheville DENR employees) is to make sure they are doing their job, and if not they will be eliminated.” He said it was part of a mandate voters had given the new majority to reform state government.

Eight years later, where do we find that hard-nosed advocate of state employee accountability? Well, he left the legislature in 2013 after 14 years, took a job as assistant secretary at the former DENR (now the Department of Environmental Quality) for two years and then, a week after being demoted by a new DEQ secretary, took a job in 2015 as a senior policy adviser to his friend, House Speaker Tim Moore.

Then, in April of 2018, Gillespie’s time on the state payroll took an odd turn. He retired from his job with Moore, but stayed on the books by reporting himself as sick nearly every work day from April 23 to Nov. 16 and collecting roughly $70,000 in sick leave. In addition, he acquired more sick time and 139 hours of vacation leave during that period. When he did officially retire early this year, he received about $18,000 for accrued vacation time, which he had protected by burning sick leave.

The top 25 salaries for North Carolina State employees. The list does not include Public School employees, General Assembly employees, University System employees or UNC Hospitals employees.

The pay for doing nothing is bad enough. But it could become even more costly given the pension implications. By stretching his total tenure as a state lawmaker, full-time state employee with DEQ and Speaker Moore’s office to 20 years, Gillespie, 59, would have qualified for early retirement under state employee policies.

Now it turns out that Gillespie’s arrangement was not proper under state personnel rules. Carolyn Hunt, head the General Assembly’s Office of Human Resources, says a staffer gave Gillespie wrong information about how much sick leave he could use. The state treasurer, meanwhile, is looking into Gillespie’s pension eligibility.

But this is hardly the end of the story. For one, Gillespie hasn’t said whether he will return the $70,000 in unwarranted compensation and Hunt isn’t saying whether she will ask for it. Indeed, the state treasurer’s office is the only one questioning how Gillespie accumulated his time of service. Hunt and other General Assembly officials seem willing to shrug off or ignore the whole affair.

Moore says it wasn’t his responsibility to know how his employee was goosing the state payroll. His staff and Legislative Services Officer Paul Coble have failed to respond to requests for comment or turn over public documents requested by The News & Observer.. Hunt also has not released requested documents that should be public.

Gillespie, his work at reforming state government complete, wants to disappear into retirement. “I’m done with Raleigh,” he said. And the people responsible for managing state funds are stonewalling when they should be explaining what happened and recovering taxpayer money that was wrongly disbursed.