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Report: Ex-AE employee misused city resources, lied to auditors

Thursday, July 15, 2021 by Jo Clifton

An investigation by the Office of the City Auditor found that a former utility accounts specialist at Austin Energy misused his city computer and email to benefit his secondary employment and failed to do work assigned to him, forcing the utility to use other employees to do that work.

John Harnsberry, the former employee, “was responsible for reviewing utility usage, determining average consumption, verifying rates, investigating potential overcharges, and adjusting customer accounts,” according to the report, which was posted on the city website late Tuesday.

Auditors said Harnsberry used his city computer and email to work on his job “as an office manager for a local restaurant.” In a very brief conversation with the Austin Monitor, Harnsberry said the allegations were “entirely untrue,” and denied that he had a second job.

In addition, auditors said that Harnsberry, who was fired in March 2021, lied to investigators about facts important to the investigation.

Auditors said Harnsberry told them his fiancée owns a local restaurant as well as the parent company associated with that restaurant. Although they were unable to quantify the full extent of Harnsberry’s misuse of city time, his supervisor told the auditors that she had been concerned about his failure to do work assigned to him. His lack of performance was documented in multiple emails, they noted.

According to the report, “In late June 2020, Harnsberry was reassigned to cover three tasks from another employee. One task involved managing the team email inbox, which received questions about meters and escalated concerns.” Auditors said at one point the supervisor found a backlog of 200 emails that Harnsberry had not dealt with.

In addition, Harnsberry was supposed to assign newly installed meters to a particular meter-reader route. Such notification would tell meter readers that they should read the meters. However, Harnsberry failed to perform that task between June 23, 2020, when he got the assignment, and July 9, 2020.

“His inaction led to over 1,000 meters being unassigned and customers receiving estimated bills,” instead of the accurate bills they would have received if the meters were being read, auditors wrote. “His supervisor estimated that Harnsberry’s lack of action created 220 hours of corrective work for AE. Staff from other divisions, for example, billing, all the way up to an AE Vice President were involved in fixing the problem. Based on the AE staff involved, we estimated that the extra work cost AE $5,600. We also found that between July and September 2020, Harnsberry didn’t address any customer tickets that were assigned to him.”

At some point, Harnsberry, who was already facing scrutiny for not keeping up with his work, left his office to submit a variance request to Austin Public Health on behalf of the restaurant, auditors said. Harnsberry’s supervisor was not aware he had taken time off work to do that and did not approve leave for him on that particular day.

Harnsberry told investigators that he was on his lunch break at the time. Auditors noted that the sign-in logs suggest he was at the Austin Public Health office longer than his half-hour lunch break. He was already on disciplinary probation for attendance issues and was required to give his supervisor prior notification of any deviation from his scheduled work shift, which he failed to do.

Auditors noted in the report that the investigation started as a referral from Austin Energy, which received a complaint that Harnsberry had been bragging “about not doing a full day’s work for the city, and instead spending his time ‘volunteering’ at a local restaurant.” Investigators did not name the restaurant in the report.

Brian Molloy, chief of investigations for the auditor’s office, told the Monitor, “I think the biggest takeaway was just how helpful Austin Energy was. They identified his poor performance and shared that with our office and were a great resource for us” in helping to show how much Harnsberry’s failure to perform his work cost the city, in at least one instance. That’s necessary to show that an employee’s violation of city code results in a cost to the city that is not de minimis, or too small to be meaningful.

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