Kevin Lilly is one step closer to becoming a commissioner at the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission — an embattled state agency that’s been in the Legislature’s crosshairs over controversial spending practices in recent months.
During a Senate Nominations Committee hearing Monday, Lilly said his most important duty, if he’s confirmed by the full Senate, would be helping to replace Executive Director Sherry Cook, who last month announced she was stepping down.
“The most critical mission will be the facilitation of selecting an executive director who can take the commission’s wishes as well as the mission of the agency and apply them through his or her chain of command,” Lilly, a Houston businessman and Army veteran, told the panel.
Lilly’s nomination to the agency heads to the full Senate for final confirmation, and state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, the committee chairman, said he plans to introduce the nomination for a vote on the floor Tuesday.
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Gov. Greg Abbott and state lawmakers have moved to shake up the agency after The Texas Tribune reported that Cook and other TABC top brass spent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars traveling around the country, attending liquor conferences and staying at upscale resorts in places like Hawaii.
Cook announced she’ll leave her post May 23. The announcement came after House lawmakers grilled Cook and other agency leaders in a three-hour committee hearing over TABC’s spending and its failure to keep accurate records on state-owned vehicles driven by agency officials.
TABC’s three commissioners pick the agency’s executive director, and a discussion about Cook’s replacement is on the agenda for a May 23 meeting.
Lilly said his involvement in choosing the next executive director would be “critical” and suggested that the agency’s problems were fixable.
“Conferences, as a general rule, can be effective, but I also think they can be abusive,” Lilly said. “They shouldn’t be an excuse for professional vacations.”
Birdwell said he was concerned about a lack of response from TABC commissioners as reports surfaced about the controversies.
“What will you do as a new commissioner to ensure commissioners are speaking to the Texas Legislature and representing the concerns of Texas?” Birdwell asked Lilly.
“Until I can build the trust of this Legislature, I need to have more communication than not,” Lilly said, adding he hoped to form relationships with lawmakers that enabled impromptu phone calls asking for input.
Lilly was also asked about top TABC brass getting certified as peace officers. Cook and TABC Deputy Executive Director Ed Swedberg obtained peace officer certifications, which allowed them to collect “hazardous duty pay” while receiving perks such as high-powered weapons and state take-home vehicles.
“The last thing I want to do is de-legitimize law enforcement officers — boots on the ground is important ... but I don’t think the executive director of TABC needs to be a peace officer,” Lilly said, adding that around 220 TABC employees are peace officers.
“I’m ready to find an executive director to fill the role with great vigor and enthusiasm,” Lilly said. “I’m ready to get to work.”
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