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Burnet County expects AG opinion in possible nepotism case

Burnet County Human Resources Director Sara Ann Luther and Commissioner Jim Luther Jr.

Burnet County Human Resources Director Sara Ann Luther (left) makes a presentation to the Commissioners Court. Her husband, Jim Luther Jr. (right), is the Precinct 1 commissioner. The county is currently seeking an opinion from the Texas Attorney General's Office on whether state nepotism laws have been violated. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey

Burnet County Attorney Eddie Arredondo is awaiting an official opinion from the Texas attorney general on a possible nepotism violation in county leadership. The request was sent to AG Ken Paxton’s office on June 2 and concerns the hiring and continued employment of Sara Ann Luther as the county’s human resources director. 

Luther is married to Burnet County Precinct 1 Commissioner Jim Luther Jr., who had been in that elected position for 18 months when his wife was hired by a committee separate from the Commissioners Court. The problem is that the court ultimately oversees her job and pay, leading to a question of nepotism.

AG opinions carry a lot of legal weight, according to Arredondo, and it is a common practice to seek an opinion when the law is unclear, as he says it is in this case.

Based upon past AG opinions, a county’s human resources director position is traditionally an extension of the commissioners court and under its umbrella of responsibility. In Burnet County’s official organization chart adopted for the 2022-23 fiscal year, HR director is listed fourth in a line of eight positions that report directly to the Commissioners Court. 

The request for an attorney general’s opinion is twofold: the hiring followed by the continued employment of an official who reports to an elected board that includes a spouse. 

In the case of Sara Ann Luther’s hiring, Arredondo said state nepotism laws don’t seem to have a decisive answer on whether it was a violation because she was technically not appointed to the HR director’s position by the Commissioners Court. The county hired her for the job in 2018 after she applied. Her husband has served as Precinct 1 commissioner since January 2017.

Sara Ann Luther was interviewed by a committee consisting of outgoing HR Director Shirley Bullard, HR Assistant Connie Wofford, and Burnet County Treasurer Karrie Crownover. 

Her hiring was intentionally handled this way, according to County Judge James Oakley. (Oakley is currently suspended from the position pending the outcome of a jury trial on a misdemeanor charge set for Aug. 29.) 

Oakley told DailyTrib.com that he did not want to be involved in the vetting or hiring process because he personally knew the Luthers.

“Because Jim was on the court and because I knew (Sara Ann) well, I didn’t want to have anything to do with the process,” he said. “We left it to (former HR Director Bullard) to form a committee and handle the job posting, interviews, all of it.”

When DailyTrib.com spoke with Sara Ann Luther about the matter, she reiterated the fact that the Commissioners Court and the county judge did not play a part in her hiring.

“The commissioners did not have any role in the choice; it was all the committee,” she said. “The only commissioner that was aware that I was applying was Jim. I (also) let Judge Oakley know that I intended to apply.”

The second question is whether Sara Ann Luther’s continued employment as HR director is a violation of the state’s nepotism laws, which could lead to her being forced to step down or even criminal charges. While she was not appointed by the Commissioners Court, her department’s budget is in the court’s hands. This isn’t unique, however. The court is responsible for approving the budgets of all county departments.

In his letter to the Texas attorney general, Arredondo asks “… Would the continued approval of payroll and annual budgets for the department by the commissioners’ court be a nepotism violation? Finally, if there are nepotism violations, who may be criminally pursued for such action under Texas Government Code 573.084?”

Arredondo was originally alerted to the potential violation by District Attorney Wiley “Sonny” McAfee.

“A county employee brought it to me, representing several employees, and asked for my opinion,” McAfee said. “It wasn’t so much a complaint as a question: ‘Is this an issue?’”

Nepotism falls under Arredondo’s jurisdiction rather than McAfee’s, but the DA explained that it is normal for his office to receive questions and complaints from various government agencies, even if the issue falls outside of his purview.

The path forward, if it is determined that nepotism laws were violated, is uncertain. Arredondo explained that there could be multiple avenues. Sara Ann Luther might have to vacate her position, or it could be as simple as changing the wording of her title or shuffling the job to a new department. None of this will be clear until the state responds. 

“We’re waiting for an answer from the Attorney General’s Office,” Arredondo told DailyTrib.com. “Until we get those answers, I’m not prepared to take any action. We don’t need to be rash one way or the other. Let’s see what the interpretations are.”

dakota@thepicayune.com