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Commission: Former police monitor did not violate city policy

Friday, March 23, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

On Wednesday night, the Ethics Review Commission found that former police monitor Margo Frasier was not in violation of any city policy and did not impose any sanctions against her.

By clearing Frasier’s name in a 7-2 vote, the commission took a stance on future cases involving personal internet use on city-owned computers for all city employees. During deliberation, Commissioner Luis Soberon noted that “I think what we’re being asked to do … is potentially introducing a new standard to how we read this piece of code.”

Frasier, who was accused of using her city computer to engage in tasks related to her secondary employment as a law enforcement consultant and expert witness, testified that she was not guilty of any ethics violation because she was diligent about keeping her outside work separate from her role at the city. Furthermore, she said that it was no secret that she was performing both city and extracurricular duties simultaneously.

According to her lawyer Perry Minton, former City Manager Marc Ott hired her specifically because of her outside consulting business and gave her special dispensations, including 80 hours of extra vacation time, so that she could continue serving in the two roles.

The defense tried for nearly two hours to get Ott on Skype so that he could corroborate the statement, but they were unable to do so.

In their evidence, city investigative auditors presented an exhaustive review of Frasier’s work computer history from April 2015 to November 2017. They found that only 16 percent of her browsing history was related to her position as police monitor. Seventy-two percent of her browsing was for leisure, which included visits to car dealership websites and vacation destinations. Only 5 percent, or 300 clicks, of her browsing was related to her secondary employment. The auditors were also able to produce seven documents from her local files that were related to her consulting work.

The commission found that the evidence presented was not sufficient because the Office of the City Auditor was making the case that the violation was because of her use of city property to participate in activities related to her second employment for “personal benefit.” Commissioners expressed concerns that there was no way to prove that her web traffic did not in any way also benefit the city of Austin while she was doing research for her consulting services.

“What was troubling for me was the inability to separate the employments,” said Commissioner Meagan Harding.

Frasier claimed during her testimony that these accusations were politically motivated. She accused Former Police Chief Art Acevedo of encouraging his staff to file a complaint against her because of personal disagreements. “I had heard, and I was told, that he had encouraged people to file a complaint against me,” Frasier said.

When she had made this claim back in December, the commission attempted to subpoena the auditor’s office for the name of the whistleblower, but City Council revoked its right to do so, which Chair Peter Einhorn and Commissioner Brian Thompson said they were still concerned about.

Despite her claim that this case was politically charged, commissioners stuck strictly to the facts presented. “So whether or not this was initiated by a politically motivated accusation, that doesn’t tell us whether the relevant facts meet the code,” said Soberon.

The facts, commissioners agreed, were de minimis, or too minor to merit consideration. Jason Hadavi, deputy city auditor, however, argued, “Ms. Frasier clearly misused city resources for city benefit,” which coupled with the fact that she was a city executive exceeds the auditor’s office’s threshold for de minimis.

Frasier’s attorney, Minton, however, noted that the determination of de minimis is not a set standard and is at the discretion of the auditors.

After nearly three hours of arguments and testimony, the commission was unable to determine that the city’s evidence proved that her activities were in violation of city code. At the vote, Soberon and Commissioner Mary Kahle opposed the finding of no violation, and Commissioner Ben Stratmann was absent.

After the final verdict was made, Hadavi told the Austin Monitor that he immediately had an employee come up to him and question the impact this decision will have on the acceptable standards of internet usage for city employees. “Many city employees have been held accountable for these exact same violations,” he said. “This is a very specific departure from that treatment.”

He said that although superficially, the ruling in this case seems to only affect the career of one individual, in reality, its impact will live on as a precedent for future violations of a similar nature. “I cannot recall this clear of a violation lacking complete accountability,” Hadavi said.

Photo by John Flynn.

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