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DA looking at city employees accused of cheating on payroll records

Friday, August 20, 2010 by Austin Monitor

The Travis County District Attorney’s Office has received information on two of five City of Austin employees accused of involvement in falsifying payroll records by City Auditor Kenneth Mory.


Assistant District Attorney Gail Van Winkle, chief of the District Attorney’s white collar crime unit, explained that the auditors refer criminal investigations to a special investigative unit of the Austin Police Department, which then makes a decision on which cases to refer to the District Attorney for prosecution.


Van Winkle told In Fact Daily that her office had received information on two of the employees but declined to identify those employees by name or department. She said it would be the job of her division to take the cases before a Travis County Grand Jury when they have enough information to do so. However, she said she could not provide any further information on when that might occur.


The Auditor’s Office has identified the following as targets of recent audits that have been referred for possible criminal prosecution: Maurice Whitfield, an administrative assistant at Austin Energy; Mary Priddy, former assistant to Toby Futrell and current Austin Energy employee; and three employees from Communications and Technology Management (CTM): buyer Kevin Burns, his supervisor, financial manager Margaret Ha; and Ha’s supervisor, Pam Hart, IT program services manager.


In addition to the employees, the auditors say they uncovered wrongdoing by a city contractor, MRSW. In an August 12 memo, the auditors alleged that an employee of the company, which had a contract with CTM, had falsified timesheets for at least two workers “resulting in an inappropriate financial benefit exceeding $5,000.” That employee’s actions may constitute violations of state law, according to the auditor. 


According to a report from the auditor’s office, Whitfield may have been falsifying his own payroll records to the tune of $30,000. The report states, “The evidence we gathered through our investigation, including the employee’s own admission, substantiated the allegation.”


An official familiar with the investigation said part of Whitfield’s job duties included entering the data from his own and other employees’ timesheets into a computer.


Austin Energy spokesman Carlos Cordova said Whitfield resigned on May 21. Cordova said Priddy, the other Austin Energy employee, has been on administrative leave since April 20. Priddy, who also entered data from time sheets as part of her duties in the city manager’s office, including her own, is accused of receiving “an inappropriate financial benefit exceeding $2,000” while working for Futrell. Like her boss, Priddy was known to work long hours.


The case outlined against the three technology management employees is more complicated. According to the report from auditors, the three worked together to allow Burns, a buyer, to falsify his time sheets because his compensation was not as high as that of his co-workers. Auditors claim that Burns “stated that Margaret Ha…told him that Pam Hart…had approved for him to add hours onto his timesheet that he did not work…Hart admitted that she approved Ha’s request to allow Burns to falsify his time; however, Ha denied these events took place.”


City Human Resources Director Mark Washington told In Fact Daily Thursday that all three had been placed on administrative leave but he was not certain of when that had occurred.  


Asked whether employees should be entering the data from their own timesheets into the computer, Washington said, “Certainly after reports like this you want to evaluate controls on timekeeping.”


However, Washington said, paraphrasing his boss, City Manager Marc Ott, “Despite any system, it’s still ultimately up to the person. If their intent is to act without integrity, they can abuse the system.”


Ott sent a memo to all city employees late Thursday noting the current controversy as well as an effort to help employees behave ethically.


Ott wrote, “Part of having a successful culture of ethical behavior is making it safe to come forward and speak up when something doesn’t seem right, whether through your normal chain of command, the Human Resources Department, the Integrity Office or the City Auditor. As I’ve said on numerous occasions, in our Straight Talk discussions and elsewhere, I urge you to use these resources in reporting possible unethical behavior. I can assure you that, as issues are brought to light, we will investigate and address them quickly and fairly.”

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