Final hearing scheduled for fraudulent vacation time case
After retiring in June of last year, Curtis Graves, a former superintendent of system operations at Austin Energy, found out that he was under investigation for his use of vacation and sick time by both Austin Energy’s internal Human Resources team and the Office of the City Auditor.
On Aug. 8, Graves came before the Ethics Review Commission for a preliminary hearing on the charge that he took 103.94 hours of sick and vacation leave but marked it as regular time on his time sheets, thereby costing the city $4,700.
According to Kevin Salas, a senior investigator in the Office of the City Auditor who presented the case to the commission, not only was Graves paid for the time he didn’t work, but he was also paid out his remaining vacation hours when he retired. Salas indicated that if Graves had properly marked his time spent at work, he “would have needed an additional 9.32 hours of leave without pay” in order to take the amount of time off that he had.
Graves countered that the confusion around his time sheet arose from the fact that at Austin Energy, one cannot log more than eight hours of work a day. However, because of the nature of his job, he regularly worked late and would, therefore, be off at other points during the week to balance out his schedule.
“My group was a weird group because every week our times were getting messed up,” he said. “There were times I pulled 24-hour shifts.”
Still, Austin Energy company policy dictates that time sheets must be signed by supervisors, and so the commission and the auditor’s office questioned the fact that many of Mr. Graves’ time sheets were approved by his subordinates.
“The time sheets are supposed to be signed by the supervisor. We did not get a clear answer on why they were accepted without the supervisor’s signature on it,” explained Salas.
Graves shed some light on the situation, saying that it was only recently that these signature requirements were enforced at Austin Energy. Before that, “It was never enforced to have my boss sign it,” he said. “They know. They’re there, they know what hours we worked.”
Another point of confusion revolved around Graves’ job description. According to the auditor’s office, he was expected to be in the office 40 hours a week. His other duties, which included site visits, after-hours emails and calls, were expected to be done outside of his 40 hours of “butt-in-seat time.”
“Sounds like someone needs to do a review of job descriptions,” noted Commissioner Donna Beth McCormick. Likewise, Commissioner Peter Einhorn said, “I would imagine there are federal labor issues with that.”
Mr. Graves noted that this expectation was only made clear to him on Nov. 9, 2016. He retired on June 30, 2017.
Before November, he explained that his supervisors had allowed him to work from home to allow him flexibility on the job.
Chair Ben Strattman explained that he was torn over “the nature of your job and how difficult that is to track those hours … especially considering you didn’t have any compensatory time policy,” he said. “The other side of the coin that I see is it would be easy for someone to conclude knowing that you were nearing retirement … (and) knowing that you were going to get paid out for your vacation time … that you were in a sense running out the clock to get paid for that time while you were doing other things.”
While the commissioners were unable to determine the validity of the time sheet entries on Wednesday evening, Einhorn said, “I think there is a knot that needs to be untied, but I think it’s worth untying.”
The commission voted unanimously to proceed to a final hearing of the case. Commissioners Meagan Harding, Dennis Speight, Mary Kahle, Brian Thompson and Tray Gober were absent. Testimony will be heard from both parties on Oct. 10.
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Key Players & Topics In This Article
Austin Energy: As a municipally-owned electric utility, Austin Energy is a rarity in the largely deregulated State of Texas. It's annual budget clocks in at over $1 billion. The utility's annual direct transfer of a Council-determined percentage of its revenues offers the city a notable revenue stream.
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.