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Audit shows Austin Water Utility manager violated numerous city rules

Tuesday, August 28, 2012 by Michael Kanin

A division manager with the Austin Water Utility used city time and equipment to operate his real estate business, according to an internal audit obtained by In Fact Daily via an open records request. He is now being allowed to retire.


Seyed Miri, the head of the utility’s development services department, “engaged in extensive inappropriate activities and multiple violations of City Code and Personnel Policies,” according to the audit. A utility spokesperson told In Fact Daily that Miri would be allowed to retire from the utility in October. He’s been with the utility since February 1999.


Utility director Greg Meszaros informed employees in a March 1 email that Miri was “out of the office indefinitely.” As In Fact Daily first reported in April, that move came in the wake of allegations leveled in January by Eric Hoffmaster, a project manager for the multi-national engineering firm Atkins Global.


Hoffmaster complained that he was being unfairly treated in regard to his personal on-site septic system because of previous interactions with Miri. “Mr. Miri and myself were involved in a few business transactions prior (to) him revoking my (on site sewage facility) permit,” Hoffmaster wrote in an email. “After conversations with multiple engineers and city staff which leads me to believe that the revocation is a personal matter.” (See In Fact Daily, April 3, 2012.)


According to emails obtained via open records request by In Fact Daily for the April story, Miri was also accused of similar behavior in 2007. “If you recall, back in 2007 there were similar allegations against this employee,” wrote the utility’s Internal Audit Division Manager Anna Bryan-Borja. “Internal Audit did the preliminary work and then turned it over to (the Office of the City Auditor) in early 2008.”


The emails revealed that Miri further complicated his situation by not offering a complete response to an open records request from the complaining citizen, Hoffmaster. Bryan-Borja wrote Meszaros on Feb. 7 to inform him that “my team has reviewed (the public information request) and confirmed that there were multiple items in Seyed’s email mailbox that were responsive to the request but were not provided” to Hoffmaster.


This year’s auditor concluded that Miri: “directed staff to enforce (Hoffmaster’s) on-site sewage facilities . . . case more aggressively than other cases, and failed to “produce all responsive documents for the Utility’s response to (Hoffmaster’s) Public information Request.” In addition, the audit concluded that Miri failed to inform his supervi that he was actively working as a licensed real estate broker and that he “repeatedly made extensive use of City resources and staff to support his personal business dealings and his outside employment.”


In regards to the Hoffmaster case, the audit found that Miri directed staff to conduct an extra inspection of the property, directed staff to request that the City Building Inspection Division inspect the property for building permit violations and “directed staff to file charges in Municipal Court against the citizen on the 31st day after the Notice of Violation.”


Employees told the auditor that Miri’s actions were “unusual, and they believed that the Division Manager was more aggressive in enforcing this case than other cases.”


For his part, that audit says that Miri “told his supervisor that he did not know (Hoffmaster) but he had met the citizen at a conference.” However, according to the audit, “some employees stated that (Miri) said he knew the citizen when discussing enforcement actions.”


The audit adds that Miri “told his former and current supervisors that he has his personal real estate and he was doing business on his own,” and that he “listed his real estate license on his employment application in 1999.” But, according to the document, “extensive review of the Division Manager’s personnel records found no documentation that his outside employment … was disclosed.”


It further reports that Miri’s supervisor, utility assistant director David Juarez, knew about Miri’s license but was unaware that Miri was actively working in the field.


The audit also reveals that Miri “initially stated that he never used City resources for outside business activities.” When confronted with documents that would suggest otherwise, Miri

confirmed that they were not related to Utility business.”


The audit concluded that with his actions Miri violated six separate city codes and possibly a section of the Texas state penal code. These include city rules pertaining to employee ethics, city rules against “employment or compensation” that could “reasonably be expected to impair independence in judgment or performance of City duties,” city rules about disclosure of conflicts of interest, and the state law that covers abuse of official capacity.


The report recommended that Meszaros consult with human resources, the city auditor, city legal staff and the Austin Police Department about the case. In late July, the utility decided to let Miri use personal leave time to cover his absence until October, at which point he will be allowed to retire.


An official with the Travis County District Attorney‘s office told In Fact Daily that the case had not been referred to them.


Miri did not return multiple calls requesting comment for this story. In a July interview, he told In Fact Daily that he couldn’t “really talk about it at this point.” At the time, he confirmed that he still had his real estate license.

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