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Audit finds golf chief accepted favors from employee

Wednesday, October 27, 2021 by Jo Clifton

The superintendent for the Parks and Recreation Department’s golf complex accepted favors from an employee he directly supervises, according to a recently released investigative report from the Office of the City Auditor.

After receiving an allegation that Nick Smitham, the golf complex supervisor, directed a PARD employee to repair Smitham’s personal vehicles, members of the audit team looked into the matter. According to the report, the employee is a mechanic who confirmed that he “performed repair work on Smitham’s personal vehicles on at least eight occasions and potentially on as many as 15.” Auditors said they were able to identify 10 separate incidents that occurred between 2012 and 2019.

Auditors wrote that the mechanic worked on a fuel pump on Smitham’s boat and the water pump and brakes on Smitham’s personal cars. The employee estimated he had spent eight to 15 hours doing this work while Smitham estimated the time at three to four hours. Auditors were not able to determine the specific dates for those instances; however, they said the mechanic told them he “had not done any personal favors for Smitham since approximately 2019.”

Smitham told members of the audit team that all of the work on his personal vehicles occurred after work hours. He said he did not pay the employee for his work although he claimed he would have been willing to do so.

Auditors found at least two occasions on which the mechanic worked on Smitham’s personal vehicles prior to becoming a city employee. “During the time of these favors, the mechanic worked for a vendor with an ongoing city contract. Additionally, Smitham was the primary point of contact for that vendor at the golf course he managed.”

Auditors wrote that besides directly supervising the mechanic, “Smitham also participated in the hiring process for the employee, including by sitting on the interview panel.”

According to the report, a new gift policy for city employees went into effect on Dec. 24, 2018. “Although Smitham may have accepted some favors after this date, the majority of the instances we identified took place before the policy change. Given that timeline, the previous gift policy applies to the majority of these favors. The previous policy prohibits any gift or favor that may reasonably tend to influence the receiver in the discharge of their official duties.”

The report continues: “The updated gift policy put in place after the majority of these favors expressly accounted for the inherent problems associated with supervisors receiving favors from those they supervise …. The updated policy also prohibits gifts or favors valued at more than $50. Based on cost estimates from the mechanic and industry data, it appears that these gifts of service would violate the new policy’s threshold of $50.”

Auditors noted that, as the mechanic’s direct supervisor, Smitham “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 at least eight incidents of free repair work, 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.”

The mechanic told auditors he “did not feel any pressure or obligation to help because of the direct report-supervisor relationship” and that he “most likely offered to help or provide advice. PARD management did not believe the employee received any special treatment from Smitham as a result of helping on his personal equipment.” Smitham did not send a written response to the auditors.

Lucas Massie, a parks department assistant director, said in a memo to the auditor’s office that he concurred with the findings of the audit report and that PARD “is preparing to address these findings with the employee” with the help of the department’s HR division. He added that PARD “is currently undertaking efforts to ensure all employees have taken and passed the most recent city of Austin ethics training.”

Brian Molloy, chief of investigations for the auditor’s office, told the Austin Monitor that people in the department were helpful to his staff who conducted the investigation.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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