Shared from the 6/6/2019 Houston Chronicle eEdition

Aide fired, told to repay salary

Probe opened into council staffer’s pay, edited timecards

Picture

Albert

Houston’s highest-paid council staffer has been fired after a city investigation into the timecards he filed while out of state at a military law training program concluded he violated city policies, displayed a pattern of “untruthfulness,” and should repay a portion of the salary he collected during those four months.

Daniel Albert, who was chief of staff to District F Councilman Steve Le, listed standard work days or sick days to continue collecting his $119,600 salary from late January to mid-May, when he was in Georgia and then Virginia in the Judge Advocate General’s Officer Basic Course, the Houston Chronicle reported last month.

Le, who suspended Albert without pay two weeks ago, signed paperwork firing his top aide on Tuesday, the mayor’s office confirmed, though the termination memo is dated May 30.

Le had said he approved Albert’s participation in the JAG program but did not expect him to work remotely. For the first two months of the deployment, however, Albert’s timecards listed standard 40-hour work weeks.

After being notified that the Chronicle had requested records related to his city work in late March, records show Albert used 40 days of paid sick leave he had accumulated to schedule sick leave through the end of his training. City ordinance prohibits employees from working non-city jobs while on sick leave, and bars city workers on active duty military status from using sick leave.

City Inspector General Robin Curtis told Albert in a Monday letter that he had violated city timecard policies and other rules by falsely claiming he was sick or injured in order to be paid while out of state and collecting pay for days he did not work.

Curtis also focused on what she called Albert’s “untruthfulness,” including a failed “scam” in which Albert directed asubordinate to swipe his employee badge into the City Hall Annex “to falsely show your presence in the building.”

According to Curtis’ letter, Albert told OIG investigators he had opted out of the early boot camp portion of his training in order to do his city job. Later, after Albert learned his badge had not been swiped as directed, he emailed investigators seeking to retract his prior claim and replace it with a statement that he had attended boot camp but had worked remotely for the city, Curtis wrote.

“This list of misconduct,” Curtis wrote, “is not exhaustive.”

Albert did not respond to an emailed request for comment, but his attorney, Sean Timmons, said the city “egregiously violated” the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, which protects service members’ employment rights, in part by not giving Albert the chance to correct his payroll records upon returning from his military training.

He also has said some council members’ criticisms of his client demonstrate hostility toward Albert’s military service.

“We look forward to the full facts of this case being vetted and examined by the district court here in Texas after we file our imminent federal complaint against the city,” Timmons said. “We are confident when our side of the story is fully explained Mr. Albert will be fully exonerated.”

Le did not respond to repeated calls for comment and did not attend Wednesday’s city council meeting.

The councilman had said he initiated the OIG probe into Albert’s actions, but city documents show the investigation originated with an employee in neighboring council District G, who forwarded District F civic leader Julie Sagissor’s email about Albert’s JAG deployment to a city attorney on May 8.

“I’m thrilled to hear that Albert has been fired,” Sagissor said Wednesday, adding she hoped citizens would hold Le accountable. “It’s so ridiculous, it’s just this comedy that goes on and on and on. Coupled with the embarrassing antics at last week’s council meeting, it’s almost unbelievable.”

Albert and his attorney appeared at city council’s public comment session last week, where the council aide said a “media bully” had lied about his actions in an attempt to “humiliate me and mislead the public.” Mayor Sylvester Turner questioned why Albert and his attorney would attend the public comment session, while several council members lambasted them, at one point questioning why Albert would appear in his U.S. Army lieutenant uniform when he acknowledged he was not on duty.

Councilman Greg Travis, who was among the members most critical of Albert at last week’s meeting, noted Wednesday that Albert had told the council that he had not instructed asubordinate to swipe his employee badge for him, a claim contradicted in Curtis’ letter.

“Who even asks that or thinks that?” Travis said, describing Albert’s conduct as embarrassing for the city. “I think it was obvious to everybody and should have been obvious to Steve Le.”

It is unclear what portion of the salary collected during his nearly 16-week deployment Albert will be asked to repay. Curtis’ letter states he will be entitled to apply retroactively for paid military leave; city rules allow up to three weeks of paid military leave. Albert left for Georgia with about two weeks of paid leave accrued.

Albert’s work habits first came into question in 2017 during his unsuccessful campaign for a seat on the Houston ISD board of trustees.

A Chronicle investigation showed Albert for months listed 40-hour work weeks on his time cards despite being a relatively infrequent presence at City Hall and taking several out-of-town trips, in addition to running his civil law practice. Albert said he often worked from his home or law office and attended evening and weekend events that ensured he worked a full schedule. Le said at the time that he had authorized Albert to work remotely and on a flexible schedule, and praised his professionalism.

Albert amended his time cards retroactively to list a cruise to Australia and New Zealand as a vacation rather than as days worked and updated a required form that let him pursue employment outside the city.

The OIG at that time cleared Albert of wrongdoing, saying they could not prove he had “intentionally violated” city policies and describing his “record-keeping errors” as the product of “inexperience.” mike.morris@chron.com

See this article in the e-Edition Here