Thursday, August 10, 2017 by Jack Craver

Ethics panel reluctantly approves final hearing for former police monitor

The city’s Ethics Review Commission voted Wednesday to move to a final hearing over whether former police monitor Margo Frasier violated city ordinance by using her city computer for activity related to a private consulting business she ran.

The commission voted 8-3 to find that there were “reasonable grounds” that Frasier violated a section of code that bars city employees from using city facilities for a “private purpose.”

The panel also voted to subpoena documents related to the investigation conducted by the Office of the City Auditor into the matter, including interviews with witnesses, whose names will be redacted.

Those documents will include metadata that may provide more details about the length of time that Frasier spent editing documents or visiting websites that the auditor alleges were unrelated to her city employment.

Many of the commissioners voting in favor of the final hearing did so reluctantly, with several of them praising Frasier’s tenure as police watchdog and suggesting that her alleged offenses were minor.

Chair Peter Einhorn said he was stuck in a “letter of the law versus the spirit of the law conundrum” and suggested that the city ordinance that Frasier may have violated is “overly rigid.”

Commissioner Brian Thompson agreed that Frasier’s alleged violations were “de minimis,” to use the legal term, but argued that the commission’s hands were tied in the face of evidence presented by the city auditor that Frasier did respond to emails and visit websites relating to her private employment.

“Sometimes the way you change stupid rules is by having a stupid case in the newspaper so that somebody does something about it,” said Thompson. “Unfortunately there is not a de minimis standard in this ordinance.”

In addition to the de minimis claim, Frasier’s attorney, Perry Minton, argued that Frasier was hired by former City Manager Marc Ott with the understanding that she would continue her outside work. It was her outside work that made her such a compelling hire, he argued, and it was why her job offer included an additional 80 hours of “exceptional vacation time.”

A number of commissioners were intrigued by the claim relating to Ott and expressed frustration that there was no written evidence of any agreement regarding Frasier’s outside employment.

Minton also argued that it was a very blurry line between Frasier’s public position and private employment providing legal briefs and serving as an expert witness. Part of her job as police monitor was to do community outreach and research on matters relating to law enforcement, he said. Her visits to websites or news articles relating to clients, such the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office in Louisiana, could not be determined to be entirely unrelated to her city position, he argued.

That argument resonated with Commissioner J. Michael Ohueri, who suggested that Frasier’s two roles likely overlapped.

“There is a difference between somebody who is working a menial, clearly defined task and somebody whose value extends beyond just doing administrative tasks,” he said.

Nathan Wiebe, the chief of investigations for the city auditor’s office, repeatedly invoked the words of the city code in arguing that Frasier had crossed a clearly defined line, no matter the extent of the activity.

“It’s our belief that the executives at the top of the organization should exemplify to the letter the city code of ethics, more so than any other employee in the organization,” he said.

A motion to dismiss the complaint failed, with only Ohueri and commissioners Debra Danburg, Donna Beth McCormick and Fredda Holmes voting in favor. Ohueri, McCormick and Holmes were the only three to vote against moving to a final hearing.

The commission scheduled the final hearing for Nov. 8. It will revisit the issue of evidence to be presented at that hearing on Oct. 11.

Photo by John Flynn.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Ethics Review Commission: The Ethics Review Commission is charged with review of, among other issues, ethics complaints leveled against City of Austin boards and commission members. They meet quarterly.

City of Austin Office of the Police Monitor: An oversight group that, among other duties, reviews citizen complaints filed against the Austin Police Department and monitors APD internal affairs investigations.

Office of the City Auditor: This city department is created by the city's charter in order to establish and ensure "accountability transparency, and a culture of continuous improvement in city operations."

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