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Audit: AFD employee accepted gifts from subordinate

Friday, April 17, 2020 by Jo Clifton

An investigative audit by the Office of the City Auditor has found that Austin Fire Department spokesperson Michelle Tanzola violated city ethics policy by accepting gifts of photographic services from an employee who reports directly to her. Tanzola has responded to the audit report, saying, “There was nothing dishonest or nefarious here, nor was there any attempt to curry favor or preferential treatment.”

According to the report, which was released Thursday, a professional photographer who works for AFD and has his own business provided free photography sessions for Tanzola and her family in 2017 and 2018.

Under the gift policy that was in effect when the photographs were taken, no city official or employee may solicit or accept a gift or favor “that would reasonably tend to influence them in the discharge of their duties or was given with the intent to influence them in the discharge of their duties,” according to Brian Molloy, chief of investigations for the auditor’s office.

The new policy, which was adopted in December 2018, includes a number of exceptions to the no-gifts policy. However, Molloy said Tanzola’s actions would have been considered a violation of the new policy because the photography sessions would have cost more than $50 each and the policy prohibits any gift valued at $50 or more.

Auditors wrote in their report, “Tanzola, as the direct supervisor of the photographer, has official city duties that include completing the employee’s performance reviews and managing the employee’s day-to-day work. It is reasonable that receiving two free photography sessions, which have more than a nominal value, could improperly influence a supervisor when assigning work to their direct report or evaluating that employee’s work performance.”

Auditors noted that the new gift policy, which was put in place after the incidents investigated, explicitly prohibits employees from accepting gifts from those they supervise. The only exception to that is gifts that are given voluntarily “at a time when gifts are traditionally given, and the value is fairly appropriate for the occasion.”

The photography sessions were done on Nov. 6, 2017, and Nov. 18, 2018, “and at no point during their interviews did Tanzola or the employee describe the sessions as holiday gifts. The employee expressly described it as ‘doing a favor.’ Similarly, the November 2018 email between the employee and Tanzola where the photos were shared makes no mention of the session or photos being a holiday gift. However, after her interview, Tanzola emailed our office and indicated she considered the sessions a holiday gift and noted this exception in the new gift policy,” auditors wrote.

In her response to the audit, Tanzola wrote, “There was no attempt to hide the photos in question nor who took them; in fact, they were on public display with the photographer receiving credit, as there was no reason not to do so. … I stand by my assertion that the timing of the photos made them a gift. It’s a common practice across the city and within policy for coworkers to exchange holiday gifts in the spirit of the season.”

She concluded, “If the same offer was made to me today, would I accept it? No, as I believe the seven months of taxpayer time and money the auditor’s office wasted on this would have been better spent elsewhere.”

Auditors did not begin their investigation with Tanzola as their target. They learned about the gifts while interviewing the photographer about another matter, but there was insufficient evidence to pursue the other investigation, Molloy said. However, the auditor’s office did not consider Tanzola’s violation of the no-gift policy to be so minimal that they should ignore it.

According to an official response from AFD Assistant Director Ronnelle Paulsen, the fire chief is convinced Tanzola “now has a clear understanding of the current gift and ethics policies. As a result of the investigation, Ms. Tanzola received an oral counseling and no further discipline will be pursued.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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