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Audit: City water employees misused positions

Friday, November 1, 2019 by Jo Clifton

Two employees of Austin Water misused their positions to generate business for a plumbing business owned by one of the employees, according to an investigative report issued Thursday by the Office of the City Auditor.

That business owner/city employee, Rodney King Jr., asked his co-workers to refer business to him, even though such referrals are against city ethics regulations. According to the report, King is not a licensed plumber but acknowledged that he had a plumbing business. One customer provided auditors with a business card that had King’s name; his business name, Shade Tree Plumbing; and his email address.

King’s co-worker, Eric Ramirez, admitted to auditors “that he referred Austin Water customers to King’s plumbing business on five or six occasions,” according to the report. Auditors noted that King said he had spoken to another Austin Water employee about going into business together, but auditors were unable to confirm that employee’s involvement with King’s business.

King and Ramirez are described as pipeline technician associates in the utility’s water meter operations division. Their primary duties include “respond(ing) to citizen questions, concerns, and complaints” and “inspect(ing) water distribution and wastewater collection systems.” Auditors noted that other than repairing any damage they may have caused, the two are not permitted to fix water problems on a customer’s property.

In one particular instance, in October 2018 while he was on duty, King learned from Ramirez that an elderly Austin Water customer needed some plumbing work. King went to the customer’s property after getting off work and repaired the water leak.

“As the customer noted on King’s business card, the work took less than 30 minutes, and King charged the customer $450. The customer paid with a check made out to King personally, which King requested,” according to the report.

In addition, auditors noted that King used his city truck to drive to the bank to deposit the customer’s check.

During the investigation, King admitted knowing that providing plumbing work to Austin Water customers would “jeopardize” his job and that city ethics regulations would not have allowed him to do the work. King did not reveal his secondary work to his supervisor.

In response to the auditor’s report, King wrote that he had made “a terrible decision and I regret it.” He explained that he had “financial issues due to being in a car accident. I needed money so I thought that I could do that to help my family to get out of this family debt I was in.” King noted that he had told his wife he could do no more plumbing jobs and his wife had gone out and gotten a second job.

“I do know I did wrong and I understand that I need to be punished, but (I’m) begging that I could still keep my job. I love my job and I do my best to help answer the property owners’ questions and make the public’s opinion of Austin Water a better experience,” King wrote.

Ramirez admitted when interviewed by auditors that he made an appointment on King’s behalf for that plumbing customer, auditors said. “Ramirez specified that he made specific recommendations only with customers who were ‘in distress,’ especially elderly customers. Ramirez admitted that he knew this practice was against the rules, stating, ‘We’re not supposed to recommend anybody.’ He added that he never received payment from King for any of his referrals,” according to the report.

However, in response to the audit report, Ramirez denied arranging the appointment on King’s behalf and said he “never admitted to that accusation,” and that it didn’t happen. “I do understand my position with the city of Austin and know that the few times I recommended Mr. King for repair services was absolutely wrong.”

A memo from Greg Meszaros, director of Austin Water, to Brian Molloy, chief of investigations for the Office of the City Auditor, states that his department will collaborate with Human Resources and legal counsel “to review the report … and will then determine the appropriate next steps in this matter. Our response will include a comprehensive review of similar situations and their outcomes as documented by HRD as well as considerations of focused training to that specific work group.”

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