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Ethics commission sets final hearing for former music department staffer

Friday, April 14, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

Austin’s Ethics Review Commission will hold a final hearing next month to determine whether a former music office employee attempted to inappropriately pay herself out of city coffers.

The complaint against Ashley Buchanan, who worked as an employee in the Music and Entertainment Division for four years until 2015, is at the heart of the managerial dustup earlier this year that resulted in the upcoming resignation of former Music and Entertainment Division manager Don Pitts.

At a hearing on Wednesday the commission heard the details of the complaint filed in February by Nathan Wiebe, acting chief of investigations for the Office of the City Auditor, which demonstrated that Buchanan filed a fraudulent work order claiming her boyfriend provided DJ services totaling $2,500 for department events, even though he did not perform.

The payment was an attempt by Buchanan to recoup some of her nearly $3,500 in out-of-pocket expenses for a 2014 trip to Europe for city business. That trip was approved by city officials under the expectation that it was at “zero cost,” which Pitts told her meant she wouldn’t be able to file for official expense reimbursement.

Wiebe’s presented documentation showing Buchanan’s communication with Pitts seeking ways to recoup the money, with him never explicitly giving approval for her action in writing. Soon after Buchanan received the $2,500 check a department employee noticed the discrepancy and she returned the money to the city on Pitts’ orders.

In her response to the complaint, Buchanan said Pitts had suggested in face-to-face meetings that there were ways to recoup parts of expenses, and that she devised the scheme to compensate her boyfriend when Pitts didn’t object to her ideas.

She also said her resignation was due to Pitts creating a hostile and verbally abusive work environment, and did not admit to violating the city’s code. It was also revealed during the hearing that after Buchanan’s departure the city’s Human Resources Department conducted an investigation into the workplace environment Pitts created, though the findings of the investigation are confidential.

Commission members spent several minutes discussing Pitts’ role in the complaint against Buchanan and voted to subpoena him for the May 10 hearing. That decision comes a month after approval of a new ordinance that gives the commission the power to subpoena witnesses and penalize those who fail to cooperate.

Pitts, a longtime manager with Gibson Guitar Corp. prior to joining the city in 2009, was put on administrative leave in January when it was discovered that he failed to report Buchanan’s actions to the city. He filed an immediate resignation letter in mid-February but later agreed to stay on as a non-managerial employee through April 28 so he could help the city manage preparation for South by Southwest.

Wiebe’s complaint accuses Buchanan of violating section 2-7-62(I) of the city’s ethics code, which says city employees, “may not use the official’s or the employee’s official position to secure a special privilege or exemption for the official or the employee, to secure a special privilege or exemption for another person, to harm another person, or to secure confidential information for a purpose other than official responsibilities.”

Violations of that portion of the city code are not eligible for criminal action on the part of the city’s legal office, though the commission can levy civil sanctions for violators that range from a notification letter to a recommendation of removal from office.

Photo by John Flynn.

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