AUSTIN, Texas — For more than five years, a gubernatorial appointee has quietly gotten paid more than $90,000 for work as a Texas transportation commissioner without ever showing up.
Arlington businessman Victor Vandergriff resigned his position on the Texas Transportation Commission in February 2018, but the paychecks kept flowing.
The KVUE Defenders found a long delay by the governor to name his replacement and a provision in the Texas Constitution kept Vandergriff on the state payroll.
Vandergriff – sometimes called “Mr. Transportation” for his work as a TxDOT commissioner and considered one of the state’s most influential transportation leaders – attended his last meeting in that governor-appointed role January 25, 2018.
He said at the time that it was "just time to do something different…It’s just time for new blood." But his departure from the position also came amid scandal.
Reporting by the Texas Tribune three weeks earlier revealed Vandergriff billed Texas taxpayers as a state transportation commissioner while he was simultaneously on private lobbying trips to Austin. Vandergriff returned some of the State money after the story broke.
In June 2020, the Arlington businessman got a new job as the executive director of the Tarrant Regional Transportation Coalition, which lobbies TxDOT.
We reviewed Texas Transportation Committee meeting minutes from the past five years and could not find where he attended a single meeting since his resignation.
And yet, the KVUE Defenders have uncovered that the State of Texas kept paying him a salary of more than $1,300 a month – plus up to $120 in longevity pay – for a total of $91,796.53 through March 1, 2023.
Texans paid him the money for never showing up for work – but keeping his commissioner title.
Watchdog groups like Public Citizen say taxpayers deserve better.
“When a state employee is paid by taxpayers, it comes with the expectation that they are serving taxpayers and serving the people of Texas,” said Adrian Shelley, director of Public Citizen.
During that time, the Defenders learned that Vandergriff also remained eligible for state medical benefits and could add years to state pension eligibility. But the State won’t say whether he received those benefits, citing confidentiality.
“I think everybody understands that someone who is not doing a job doesn't deserve to be paid for doing that job,” Shelley said.
KVUE Defenders reached out to Vandergriff, who initially said he would provide a statement. He later said that he did not want to comment because he did not feel there was a benefit to doing so.
But the Defenders also worked to uncover why these payments kept flowing from Tx-DOT to Vandergriff.”
The answer is embedded in the Texas Constitution intended to make sure state agencies always have leaders at the helm.
The Texas Department of Transportation cited this provision saying “all officers of this state shall continue to perform the duties of their offices until their successors can be duly qualified.”
TxDOT added that the commissioner position still belongs to Vandergriff – despite term expiration or even stepping down from the role – until a replacement is seated.
“The presumption is that when you resign, you are going to stay in the office and continue to show up and do the work for which you have been appointed or elected,” said Randy Erben, who teaches Texas Constitutional law at the University of Texas.
Erben says even though Vandergriff resigned – he still technically holds the position – and the job is still his – until his replacement takes over.
“The way the Constitution sees it is, you can resign or your term of office can expire, but you still hold all the responsibilities and duties of the office and you still hold all the benefits of the office,” he said.
In late March – after the KVUE Defenders began asking questions – Governor Greg Abbott announced that he had appointed a replacement for Vandergriff – five years and one month after his resignation. Senate confirmation of that successor is ongoing.
In a statement, the governor’s office said: “The Texas Constitution provides that state officers, such as the TxDOT Commissioners, serve as holdovers until their replacements are appointed and qualify for office, despite term expiration or stepping down from the role. The Governor has directed the Texas Department of Transportation to update their compensation processes to ensure their commissioners are fulfilling their duties to the people of Texas.”
A spokesman did not respond to our request for follow up questions, including why it took five years and a month for Abbott to appoint Vandergriff’s replacement.
TxDOT said in a statement, quote, “As directed by the governor, TxDOT leadership is reviewing the department’s procedures for the payment of compensation to commissioners and will continue to ensure the payments are made in compliance with applicable state law.”
Shelley added, “It doesn’t matter that this position only pays 16 thousand dollars a year. What matters is that we take our roles seriously as government services, and that we don’t take salaries for jobs that we aren’t doing.”