AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Gov. Rick Perry on Friday tapped a Fort Worth deputy chief district attorney to head the state's embattled Office of Violent Sex Offender Management amid questions about who was running the agency.
Elizabeth "Christy" Jack, who has been on the agency's board since 2011, will now head it. Her term expires at the pleasure of the governor.
The agency performs functions relating to the sex offender civil commitment program. Jack replaces Dan Powers, who resigned this week citing too heavy a workload for a volunteer position.
Also, the Houston Chronicle reported Friday that two other top agency officials, executive director Allison Taylor and program manager Deborah Morgan, were on leave. Agency general counsel Celeste Blackburn said Taylor is on leave until next week, but it was unclear how long Morgan will be gone. Taylor and Morgan did not return calls seeking comment.
In the meantime, five lower-level supervisors were managing agency operations.
"Much work needs to be done to restore public confidence in this agency and to ensure it carries out its mission of protecting public safety," Perry said. "I want to thank Christy for taking on this role at such an important time for the agency."
Even before the announcement of Jack's appointment, Perry's chief of staff, Kathy Walt, told the Chronicle that her office is "moving to address the leadership vacuum at this agency." She said this is the latest in a series of concerns about the agency, including its past secretive placement of violent sex offenders and little advance notification to community residents and legislative leaders.
All high-risk sex offenders in the program have served prison sentences but are kept in custody under a civil commitment program because they are deemed too dangerous to return to society. There are about 350 offenders being held in civil commitment, with roughly half in prison and the rest in halfway houses and jails statewide.
But there is also some evidence that many of the agency's 24 employees, including Taylor, might work from home.
A copy of an employee list obtained by the Chronicle shows that employees work at four offices in Austin, Conroe, Arlington and El Paso in offices shared with offices of Department of State Health Services. Calls to the Austin headquarters, though, often go to voicemail.
State Sen. John Whitmire, a Democrat who chairs the chamber's Criminal Justice Committee, has asked the state auditor's office and a state unit that prosecutes official corruption to examine questionable contracts for housing offenders.
"At an agency that deals with the worst of the worst, an agency that appears to have been out of control for some time with its bad decisions, having the top positions vacant or on leave is not in the public interest," Whitmire said.
The agency previously has been criticized for relocating more than two dozen high-risk offenders into north Houston boarding home without any advance notice to neighbors or lawmakers who represent the area, which is customary.
After a public outcry, officials moved the offenders back to a minimum-security halfway house in east Harris County, which had previously demanded their remove because of security and operational concerns.