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Government must enforce nepotism laws

Profile image for Denton Record-Chronicle Editorial
Denton Record-Chronicle Editorial

Family businesses are as American as apple pie. Corporate empires are built on them.

Federal, state or local government officials who hire their relatives at taxpayer expense are a different matter. We've always believed that nepotism in government is a bad thing.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a legal opinion Thursday that makes it much easier for government officials to hire their close relatives instead of posting job openings and finding the most qualified candidate.

Paxton wrote his pro-nepotism opinion in response to a legal question posed by Hale County Attorney James M. Tirey in Plainview, a town of 20,000 people in the Texas Panhandle.

As Tirey explained the situation to Paxton, it appears Hale County Sheriff David Mull is responsible for transporting female inmates to clinics, prisons and other places away from the county jail. Sheriff Mull is seeking legal permission to enlist his brother and sister-in-law to perform this transportation service on a volunteer basis.

"They would receive no compensation for their time and effort transporting the prisoners, but they would use a vehicle owned by Hale County and receive money to defray their expenses (either reimbursement of actual expenses or a per diem amount)," Tirey said in his letter to Paxton.

Paxton's opinion dances on the head of a pin. It would not be OK, he opined, to appoint certain relatives to positions compensated with public funds. But then he added, "The reimbursement of expenses, however, is not compensation. Thus, a public official may appoint a close relative to a volunteer position that provides reimbursement for incurred expenses but no compensation."

So, the decision as we understand it allows Sheriff Mull to use his brother and sister-in-law as a taxi service for jail inmates and reimburse them with taxpayer money as long as the money can be called expense reimbursements or per diem (daily) payments.

Paxton and other lawyers specialize in tortured distinctions that regular folks fail to grasp as meaningful. Call us simple-minded, but it seems the money to pay Mull's relatives will come from the pockets of Hale County taxpayers. It matters little whether the payments are called "compensation" or "reimbursements." The result is the same.

In all fairness, we hasten to add that Sheriff Mull's brother is a retired Texas Ranger who still holds his peace officer certification. So, we aren't questioning his qualifications to handle prisoners in a safe and secure manner. We also realize that Hale County is a sparsely populated rural area in which it might be difficult to find other qualified candidates to transport inmates.

The real issue is Paxton's willingness to open the door to nepotism in Hale County and, by extension, to the other 253 counties in Texas. We prefer a bright red line that prohibits government officials from hiring their relatives.

Instead, Paxton has apparently decided Sheriff Mull is a good ol' boy and his brother is a good ol' boy. So, instead of handling the situation in a professional manner, he winks at an expedient solution harkening back to a bygone era when government officials could embrace nepotism without worrying about legal consequences.

Paxton's decision is not based on good public policy.