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Honor Flight duties raise concerns

Wednesday, March 27, 2019 by Jo Clifton

City employees working in the Veterans Services Office have spent a considerable amount of city time working for Honor Flight Austin, the nonprofit organization that provides trips to Washington, D.C., for World War II veterans, even though the city does not have a written agreement with the organization.

Veterans Services Office staff “were spending anywhere between 25 to 50 percent of their city work time on Honor Flight Austin activities during flight season, which takes place in the spring and the fall of every year. These activities involve accepting and processing applications, making travel arrangements for attendees and coordinating with public safety teams,” according to a report from the Office of the City Auditor.

However, Chief of Investigations Brian Molloy said he and his team concluded that city management, not employees, appeared “to be in violation of city policy regarding the appropriate use of city resources.” City policy requires that the city have a written agreement of co-sponsorship before assigning staff members to help organizations.

The report notes that “the Texas Constitution prohibits the use of city resources to benefit private individuals or entities, including nonprofits, unless the use and subsequent municipal purpose is properly documented.”

In management’s response to City Auditor Corrie Stokes, City Manager Spencer Cronk pledged that the city would take steps to comply with state law and city policies.

According to the memo, the city will enter into a written agreement with Honor Flight Austin. The city will no longer bear primary responsibility for accepting and processing applications and making travel arrangements for veterans. “The agreement will also ensure that city resources are not utilized in Honor Flight Austin’s fundraising efforts,” the memo says.

The city audit team began looking into how the Veterans Services Office was operating after receiving an allegation that one of the employees was using city resources to organize trips, fundraising events and other events for Honor Flight Austin. One of those employees was involved in the creation of the organization and he and a second employee of the office served on the board of Honor Flight Austin until December 2017 while they were both city employees.

Former Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who is a U.S. Navy veteran, initiated the city’s work with Honor Flight Austin, of which he was recently elected vice president. Leffingwell told auditors as well as the Austin Monitor that he thought it was appropriate for employees in the Veterans Services Office to work with Honor Flight Austin. Leffingwell said he worked with the former city manager on the project and it did not occur to him that he should have gotten legal advice before moving forward.

Leffingwell explained that Honor Flight Austin was created as a spinoff of the national organization in 2011. The local organization has grown and received national awards for its work, he said. But Leffingwell said he never expected city employees to be soliciting donations on city time.

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