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Allegations fly in music division ethics case

Friday, May 12, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

Wednesday’s ethics hearing for a former city employee charged with improperly obtaining city funds featured a series of allegations and testimony against the recently departed head of the city’s Music and Entertainment Division.

The 11-member Ethics Review Commission was reduced to a bare six-member quorum because of two absences, two recusals and one vacancy. Commissioners ultimately dismissed the case against former music division program manager Ashley Buchanan after a series of motions failed to get the unanimous vote necessary to take action. The closest the commission came to taking action was a 5-1 vote to find fault but no sanction against Buchanan, who filed a fraudulent vendor payment for $2,500 for her boyfriend, Clayton Lillard, in May 2015.

Much of Wednesday’s hearing centered on a trip Buchanan took to Europe in 2014 for city business that was authorized because it was filed as having zero cost to the city.

Buchanan and Lillard, who was at the time employed by the House of Songs nonprofit that sponsored the trip, said they were led to believe by Buchanan’s former supervisor Don Pitts that she could file for trip reimbursement after she returned. Buchanan said that after completing paperwork for the nearly $3,500 she spent on food and lodging, Pitts told her she couldn’t file for reimbursement but could overstate her work mileage or find another mechanism to recoup her expenses from the city.

In her response to the case presented by city investigators, Buchanan said Pitts discussed possible repayment schemes with her, but commissioners said the lack of evidence showing a conspiracy between the two left her with the responsibility for the violation.

“You bear a little bit of responsibility here, and the city has a fair expectation that city employees will do the right thing,” Chair Peter Einhorn said. “Mr. Pitts gave you bad advice, but you followed that advice.”

Pitts had been subpoenaed to appear at Wednesday’s hearing but informed the commission’s legal counsel less than an hour before its start that he would not be in attendance. His absence could be punished as a Class C misdemeanor.

In her response and testimony from witnesses, Buchanan painted a picture of Pitts as intimidating and verbally abusive in the months following her initial attempt to be reimbursed for her travel expenses. She said that behavior was in contrast to her treatment and reputation for roughly three years after her hiring, when she was entrusted with handling significant pieces of city business related to music programs.

Buchanan said Pitts would frequently use vulgar and sexually inappropriate language in the office that made her feel uncomfortable, especially when discussing his years spent as an employee of Gibson Guitars.

Buchanan resigned from her position shortly after returning the $2,500 to the city after another music division employee discovered the fraudulent paperwork. After leaving her job she assisted the city in an investigation into whether Pitts created a hostile workplace, the results of which are confidential but were frequently discussed Wednesday.

Pitts was put on administrative leave early this year when it was discovered he failed to report either Buchanan’s initial discussion of how to fraudulently recoup her money or her filing for the $2,500 after it was discovered.

He filed a letter of resignation from his position in February, but was kept on through the end of April to assist the city with planning for South by Southwest.

When asked for a response to the claims made Wednesday, Pitts denied the accusations.

“It’s a shame that these accusations are going to be aired again given that they have been conclusively dismissed by the HR investigation,” he said. “I also note that Ms. Buchanan’s latest version of her story apparently includes new claims – which I categorically deny – that were not a part of her complaint to HR. Given this history of unsupported and unfounded allegations, I don’t want to dignify her statements with any further comments.”

Photo by John Flynn.

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