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Politics > News

Toothless watchdog

How SA's Office of Municipal Integrity lost its bite

Photo Illustration by Chuck Kerr

 

Virginia Quinn still recalls the videotape she was handed by San Antonio’s chief of inspections when she took over the Office of Municipal Integrity in February 1999.

It was a copy of a 1985 KENS-5 investigative report which caught San Antonio’s Office of Inspections investigators taking kickbacks on camera, in exchange for approved building permits which overlooked faulty wiring and various other structural defects.

“It was one nasty stink bomb after another, spread out over five nights during a sweeps week,” Quinn recalls of the TV sting. “That opened the floodgates. Not only were they taking bribes, but they were punishing people who refused to participate.

“When I got the job, I went around to meet all of the directors, and said, ‘What can I do for you?’ [The chief of inspections] said, ‘Make sure nothing like this ever happens to me again.’”

San Antonio created the Office of Municipal Integrity in direct response to that 1985 scandal, with the idea that it would fill a gaping hole in the City’s oversight process, by providing the City with an outlet for whistleblowers, a team that could investigate allegations of fraud, waste, and abuse, and expose corruption.

Real oversight requires autonomy, however, and no one could credibly argue that the 2009 model of OMI is an autonomous entity. Over the last decade the office has moved from reporting to the Office of Internal Audit — a natural fit for an internal-investigations unit designed to expose bad behavior in city government — to being under the auspices of the City Manager’s office, ultimately finding itself puppet-mastered by a committee created and overseen by City Manager Sheryl Sculley.

During her time at OMI, Quinn, a retired captain in the Harris County Sheriff’s office, oversaw two civil investigators, a San Antonio Police officer, and a staff secretary. She recalls that OMI investigations, which generally hovered between 50 and 60 a year when she got the job, quickly jumped to 150 annually, and steadily climbed during her first few years.

At that time, the City’s process for handling allegations of impropriety in local government was similar to the approach currently taken by Austin, with an Integrity Unit working in the City Auditor’s office.

“This group should be under the City Auditor and be independent as well, to investigate any fraud, waste, or abuse — including investigating the City Manager and her staff,” says Pete Gonzales, who served as San Antonio’s City Auditor from May 2007 to June 2008, when he was fired*. A subsequent
Express-News investigation revealed that Gonzales was let go after he confronted City staff about overdue inspections and repairs at public playgrounds. The director of Parks and Recreation resigned as a result of the scandal.

“Other city managers will tell you that they don’t even touch that, because that’s a conflict of interest,” he adds. “That’s the reason why [Sculley] looks so great, because she suppresses everything through investigations.”

Critics of the City’s current handling of municipal integrity cases point to three sharp changes instituted during the Sculley era that have incrementally neutered OMI.

In fairness to Sculley, by the time she came to San Antonio in 2005, OMI had already become an instrument of the City Manager’s office. In 2001, at Mayor Ed Garza’s urging, the City replaced its Office of Internal Audit with a city-auditor position and made the city auditor accountable to the mayor and City Council. As a result of that shakeup, Quinn, who previously reported to Internal Audit, began to submit OMI reports directly to City Manager Terry Brechtel. Upon receiving the ethics reports, Brechtel generally convened the heads of the implicated departments to decide what, if any, disciplinary action should be taken. This approach hardly made for an independent OMI, but Quinn says it functioned effectively.

Quinn says that after Sculley took over, the City Manager’s office began to drop OMI’s reports down to the lower reaches of the municipal food chain. “First of all, we reported to a deputy city manager, then it went to the director of Innovation, and then it was relegated to the Human Resources director. It was never told to me why. All I knew was the reporting structure changed.”

Quinn suggests that the change diminished OMI’s influence and made it more difficult for her office to serve its function. “My investigations were channeled, controlled. Sometimes, for example, if I’d bring a complaint, I would be instructed to give the complaint back to the director of the department from which it came, and say, ‘Here, you take care of it.’ To me, that sort of defeats the purpose. It never happened before Sheryl Sculley.”

(The Current submitted an open-records request with the City to track complaints received by OMI. The City responded by sending the request to the Texas Attorney General’s office for a ruling. A decision is pending.)

A more subtle shift in the City’s approach to integrity complaints came the week before Sculley took office. On November 3, 2005, in his final act as Interim City Manager, Rolando Bono convinced City Council to approve an ordinance expanding the exception to municipal civil-service coverage in the City Charter “to include all current and future employees in managerial classifications.”

The move, which took effect three weeks after Sculley replaced Bono, reduced the number of mid- and upper-level management employees protected by civil service — precisely the kind of employees likely to have knowledge of municipal corruption. Without that job protection, it’s understandable that many of these staffers would feel more reticent about coming forward to blow the whistle on their supervisors.

“I noticed a big change when Sculley took over,” Quinn says. “Managers who previously would talk to us, and could do so with autonomy, wouldn’t do it anymore.” The City Manager’s office did not respond to the Current’s request for an interview.

Sculley’s final OMI shakeup came with the drafting of an August 1, 2006, administrative directive designed to spell out the City’s fraud, waste, and abuse policy. In doing so, Sculley created a “Municipal Integrity Committee.” The administrative directive states that the City Manager has the power to “oversee” the committee and that its “membership will consist of the City Manager or his/her designee, the City Attorney, the Human Resources Director, and the Police Chief or his designee.”

The directive further defines the committee’s role by stating that it “shall provide direction and guidance regarding the review and investigation of all cases after preliminary investigations and reporting” by OMI, and that it will “establish rules and protocol” for OMI and “assign cases to other agencies for investigation as necessary.”

Quinn says the effects of this administrative directive were unmistakable. “We would have these meetings where every single one of the complaints that came in got vetted in front of [the Municipal Integrity Committee],” she says. “They would decide, before we were allowed to do anything at all with them, what the direction would go. Before, when a complaint came in, we just investigated it, and it was fairly autonomous. And we investigated every single complaint.”

A year after the City initiated the new policy, Quinn’s position was eliminated, as was the position for a police officer in the investigative unit. That left OMI without a manager, an odd situation that has persisted over the last two years. Richard Hernandez, a senior investigator at OMI, is now the highest-ranking staffer in the office. He declined to speak to the Current for this article.

Quinn says that during her tenure, OMI benefited from having a police officer on staff, because “it meant we would recognize criminal issues, and whenever we had any criminal cases, he would file them.”

One former City employee, who filed an anonymous complaint with OMI on March 25, came away disheartened by the experience. The complainant alleged that three San Antonio Airport Police officers committed perjury in the Civil Service Commission hearing into the termination of Corporal Russell Martin. [See “Flight Plans,” March 4.] Despite the allegedly false testimony, the Civil Service Commission ruled that Martin had been unfairly terminated and should be reinstated, but Sculley reversed their recommendation.

Before filing the complaint, the former City employee spoke to Hernandez on the phone, and says the OMI investigator insisted that his office would be very interested in the allegations. After filing the complaint, the complainant called back to check on the investigation, and says that Hernandez responded that “it doesn’t fall under the guidelines of their administrative directive on fraud, waste, and abuse. So they weren’t going to handle it. They led me to believe they were interested, then they didn’t even look into it.

“It’s the fox guarding the henhouse with Municipal Integrity,” the complainant argues. “They need a totally separate, autonomous organization that’s really going to be concerned about doing what’s right. I think they see what information they can get, so they know what damages are out there and they go about doing damage control.”

Gonzales hesitates to go that far, but he contends that San Antonio will not have true transparency and accountability from its government until it allows its city auditor and Office of Municipal Integrity to operate independently of the city manager.

“These people are investigating themselves,” Gonzales says. “It provides opportunities for hiding stuff, covering up, suppressing information. That system should not be in place right now.

“It should come under the city auditor. That’s logic. You don’t audit your own boss, that’s what it comes down to.”

*Technically, Gonzales was not fired, but rather forced to resign.

See Also

The story that didn't run : In which an Express-News reporter uncovered a scandal at the City jail, and...(almost) nothing happened 12/2/2009

Toothless watchdog : How SA's Office of Municipal Integrity lost its bite 7/15/2009

Audit this in News 12/3/2008

Off the hook : John Foddrill claims he blew the whistle on millions in City fraud, and it cost him his job 10/8/2008

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