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Is audit trouble for Austin Energy employee?

Friday, June 2, 2017 by Jo Clifton

The City Auditor’s Integrity Unit has found evidence that Austin Energy employee Steven Salinas solicited and accepted employment from developers over whose projects he had discretionary authority in his position as a lead electric distribution designer.

However, while auditors found evidence that Salinas had worked as a contractor on various projects over which he had purview as a city employee, they could not say conclusively that he had a conflict of interest.

Salinas asserted that he has done nothing wrong, but auditors cited his refusal to cooperate as the reason they could not make a final determination on the conflict of interest allegation. The audit also said that Salinas’ refusal to cooperate was a violation of city rules requiring employees to cooperate with investigations.

In his Austin Energy job, Salinas serves as a point of contact between the utility and developers in need of Austin Energy service. “Developers submit electric service planning applications that Salinas reviews for projects in his region and assigns to employees who then draw up plans that indicate how electric infrastructure will be built on the site. Salinas reviews and approves these plans before forwarding them to a professional engineer for final approval,” according to the audit.

In his role as a consultant, Salinas draws up plans for telecommunication and gas service infrastructure for developers for their project sites. He told auditors that when he is drafting those plans “he must ensure that they do not interfere with Austin Energy’s service infrastructure,” auditors said.

In his response to the audit, Salinas wrote, “I feel that I gave full cooperation by giving you my clients (sic) contact and information numbers which were contacted by you and your department, and still you were unable to constitute a conflict of interest as defined by City Code, which leads me to believe that this should be a closed case.”

Auditors conducted the investigation as the result of a complaint they received alleging that Salinas might have a conflict of interest.

In order to allege a conflict of interest auditors must show that the “funds received … during the previous 12 months or within the previous calendar year equaled or exceeded $5,000 in salary, bonuses, commissions or professional fees.” Under the city code, employees are prohibited from participating in “decisions on matters in which they have a substantial interest,” the audit said.

Among the documents that auditors found on Salinas’ city computer were two 2016 contracts indicating a proposed fee of $15,000; two invoices for $10,000 each, also from 2016; and a January 2017 Salinas Consulting invoice for $5,000.

Auditors said, “While these fees could have created a substantial interest for Salinas, we were unable to determine whether any of these fees were collected by Salinas due to his refusal to cooperate.” Auditors said they were unable to substantiate Salinas’ involvement with the same projects in his official city job other than the fact that the projects appeared to be located within his Austin Energy region.

Salinas did disclose his outside employment to his supervisor, the audit said, and the supervisor indicated to auditors that he did not see the outside employment as a conflict of interest with Salinas’ duties at Austin Energy.

The audit, which was released Thursday, also found that Salinas had used his city computer for his secondary employment. Auditors said they found at least 19 documents on Salinas’ city computer apparently related to his secondary employment, including secondary employment contracts and invoices. They also found evidence that he “accessed a non-city email account that appears related to his secondary employment.”

“When interviewed by our office, Salinas confirmed that over the past approximately three years, he solicited or accepted secondary employment on at least eight developments that appear to be located in the region over which he is Austin Energy’s lead distribution designer. Of those, he performed work in a private capacity on at least three development projects over which he either designed or approved Austin Energy’s electric delivery service layouts in his official city capacity,” the audit said.

Those three developments include a mixed-use project of more than 200,000 square feet “featuring a high-end grocery store, shopping, dining and other entertainment space.” He told auditors that he drafted the design layout for telecommunications in 2014 and Austin Energy blueprints show that he approved electric service delivery designs in 2013.

Salinas also told auditors he performed the design and consulting work for a residential condominium development’s telecommunications and data infrastructure, according to the audit. “Austin Energy blueprints show that Salinas designed this development’s Austin Energy electric service delivery designs, which were signed by a professional engineer in March 2016.”

Auditors also found an unsigned Salinas Consulting contract for a residential development with more than 75 single-family homes from October 2015. Auditors report that the contract “shows that Salinas solicited work designing and drafting ‘all bidding and construction documents for the underground dry utilities.’ Austin Energy blueprints show that Salinas approved this development’s Austin Energy electric service delivery designs in December 2015.”

In his written response to the city auditor, Salinas said, “I did not solicit the work; it came to me through employment from the past. It was all Telecommunication and Gas layout design.” Salinas did not respond to the Austin Monitor‘s request for comment.

A memo from Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent states that management will collaborate with the utility’s human resources division “to determine the appropriate next steps in this matter.”

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Photo by Mircea Madau (crop and edit by Lucas) – Cropped version of Image:Lightning over Oradea Romania 2.jpg., Public Domain, Link

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