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Auditor voices concern about erosion of trust

Monday, November 20, 2017 by Jo Clifton

On Friday, the Office of the City Auditor turned over the name of and allegations made by a whistleblower, as well as the identities of several witnesses, in the investigation of alleged violations of city regulations by Margo Frasier, the city’s former police monitor. The documents were turned over to the City Attorney’s Office in response to a subpoena issued by the Ethics Review Commission.

Frasier, who retired in January, has been accused of using city resources and work time to work on her secondary employment. The case is scheduled for a final hearing at the Ethics Review Commission meeting on Dec. 12.

City Auditor Corrie Stokes and Nathan Wiebe, chief of investigations for the auditor’s office, have expressed grave concerns about their ability to conduct such investigations if they cannot protect witnesses from exposure.

Although the commission made the request because Frasier’s attorney, Perry Minton, insisted on seeing the names and allegations, Wiebe told the Austin Monitor on Sunday that his boss “communicated as part of our response our concerns and our position that these are intergovernmental communications.” In other words, the auditor’s office reiterated that the documents should not be shared with anyone outside the commission.

Commissioners have not previously used their subpoena power, except in the case of former city employee Don Pitts, according to commission Chair Peter Einhorn. Pitts did not show up at a hearing involving another former city employee, Einhorn said.

Stokes, who works directly for the mayor and City Council, sent an email to her bosses late Thursday explaining the situation.

“While I will comply with the ERC subpoena, I have significant concerns regarding any potential public release of informant and witness identities, as it jeopardizes all of the audit and investigative work my office performs. For this reason, Texas State law allows offices like mine to protect this type of information from public information requests, and best practice dictates the use of anonymous reporting as well as protections for informants,” she wrote.

“It is my understanding that compliance with the Commission’s subpoena is an intergovernmental communication, and therefore responding to the ERC’s subpoena will not be a public release of the information. However, at or prior to its next meeting on December 12, the Commission may choose to provide this documentation to the Respondent’s counsel which would result in this information becoming public,” Stokes said.

She concluded with identifying the heart of the problem as the auditor’s office sees it: “If a public release occurs, not only will the informant and witnesses in this case be publicly identified, I believe this will result in a chilling effect on individuals’ willingness to come forward in the future with allegations of wrongdoing for matters investigated by my office, as well as matters we refer to other entities such as allegations about discrimination or harassment. This could erode trust in our anonymous report process, result in wrongdoing going unreported and therefore uninvestigated, and ultimately weaken the City’s overall ethical culture.”

When told of the situation, Mayor Steve Adler indicated to an Austin Monitor reporter last week that he was concerned. Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and City Council Member Leslie Pool also expressed concern. Pool told the Monitor on Sunday that she expects to have an executive session on the matter with the city attorney in the near future. The next regularly scheduled Council meeting is Dec. 7, just five days before the commission is scheduled to hear Frasier’s case.

However, Council members could express their opinions at any time on the sharing of what have previously been confidential documents.

Photo by M.Fitzsimmons (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.

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