OMV commissioner mum on lucrative raises for few employees
BATON ROUGE – Unusually high raises were given to four civil service employees within the Office of Motor Vehicles.
State officials have been mum on the raises – three of the employees are closely aligned with ranking administrators at higher levels of government.
The employees were given a discretionary compression pay raise – allowing the salaries, on average, of each of the four employees, to balloon to about $80,000. Civil service rules do not allow raises that high in one budget year, so the Office of Motor Vehicles split the raises up between two fiscal years. Each raise totaled about 20%, the first increase by 10% in January 2019 and another 10% in the next budget cycle six months later.
State government watchdogs question the raises.
"Anytime something like this happens, it's fair to ask for what the justification was and to look back at it and have an outside agency look at it," Robert Scott of the Public Affairs Research Council said.
The raises were given to three people who are tied to high-ranking employees at State Police or other areas of the Office of Motor Vehicles. OMV operates under the umbrella of State Police.
The commissioner of the OMV would not agree to schedule a TV interview related to the raises and only called the raises “deserving” in a phone conversation. WBRZ made attempts to schedule an interview multiple times since January 8.
EMPLOYEES AND THEIR CONNECTIONS
The employees who received the raises are Ashleigh Starnes, Paige Paxton, Kelly Simmons and Shantel Lege. The WBRZ Investigative Unit found connections at State Police or the OMV to Starnes, Paxton and Simmons, but did not find a connection for Lege.
Ashleigh Starnes is married to State Police Lieutenant Colonel Jason Starnes. She was hired in May 2003 and is making $87,339.20 after her 20-percent raise.
Paige Paxton is the sister of Office of Motor Vehicles Deputy Commissioner Staci Hoyt. Paxton was hired in January 2010 and is making $77,646.40 after her 20-percent raise.
Kelly Simmons is the girlfriend of Michael Sittig, the statewide program manager at State Police. Simmons was hired in September 2003 and is making $83,532.80 after her 20-percent raise.
Shantel Lege was hired in January 2006 and is now making $77,521.60 after her 20-percent raise.
All four women share the same title: Motor Vehicle Administrator.
Scott would hope for an explanation: "You have to reassure the public that you are doing this in a fair manner and that no one is getting special treatment, and no one is getting special attention especially when familial relations are involved."
OMV COMMISSIONER PROMISES INTERVIEW
Office of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Karen St. Germain said over the phone that the raises were deserving as the four employees are doing more. She added the raises were done in accordance with civil service rules.
But none of the four employees' titles changed, according to information from the civil service office. Those familiar with the process called it highly unusual.
On January 8, 2020, St. Germain promised an on-camera interview to discuss the matter. Following that conversation, St. Germain did not answer calls or text messages. When the WBRZ Investigative Unit reached Deputy Commissioner Staci Hoyt, St. Germain began returning messages and claimed to have been ill.
But, she never made herself available to discuss the raises on TV, raises she had to help authorize.
"Karen St. Germain was a really good state legislator," Scott said. "I thought she was very transparent. I think she has been running a transparent office at OMV. Now, here is a new test for her, and to see how she is going to handle it. I would think she would want to and eventually will handle this in a transparent manner."
UPSET EMPLOYEES CALL THE RAISES FAVORITISM
Multiple employees at the Office of Motor Vehicles told WBRZ the 20-percent raises for only four employees have an appearance of special treatment. The employees asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation.
Documents the WBRZ Investigative Unit obtained while researching the raises showed Paige Paxton reports to her sister Staci Hoyt at the OMV. Over the phone St. Germain disputed the hierarchy and said Paxton reports directly to her and not Hoyt.
Questions over how those four were given huge raises and whether their close connections to powerful people played a part need to be answered, Scott charged.
"If you are going to give extraordinary raises to employees, you need to go through some form of justification," Scott said. "The bar is higher if there's a family relationship within the agency."
Scott said the OMV is setting itself up for concerns this legislative session. Typically, OMV doesn't get much scrutiny since much of its revenue comes from fees. PAR believes this year will be different.