An Austin Energy lead line designer was working as a consultant for developers trying to get electric service plans approved — even as he was the person at the utility responsible for approving their projects, a city investigative audit released Thursday found.
Steven Salinas solicited work or worked as a consultant for at least eight developments within the region where he controlled plan approval, the audit said. His supervisor, Michael Pittman, knew of the jobs and didn’t consider them a problem, according to the audit.
But auditors found Salinas violated city rules regarding outside employment, as well as misused city resources by using his city computer for the outside work. The consequences for that haven’t yet been determined.
Salinas’ city role as an electric distribution lead designer made him a point person for developers who needed to submit planning applications for on-site electrical infrastructure. He was responsible for reviewing and approving those plans.
The developers who hired him would pay him to draw up plans for telecommunication and gas service infrastructure for the same sites, the audit said. Salinas told auditors he would do that to ensure that infrastructure didn’t interfere with electric lines.
He drafted telecommunication design layout for a 200,000-square-foot mixed-use shopping and entertainment development in 2014, then approved its electric service delivery designs for the city months later. He worked as a consultant for a condo and commercial business where he also designed its city electric service delivery plans in 2013 and 2016.
“Salinas’ secondary employment with these developers might reasonably be expected to impair his independence in judgment or performance of his City duties,” the audit said.
Salinas, 56, has worked with Austin Energy since 2010. Last year he earned $112,509.
Auditors were unable to determine whether Salinas’ outside consulting work technically constituted a conflict of interest, because he wouldn’t provide payment information to show whether he had a “substantial interest” — defined as earning more than $5,000 in a year — in the companies. Auditors found consulting files on Salinas’ city computer, including two unsigned 2016 contracts totaling $30,000 and three 2016 and 2017 invoices totaling $30,000.
“While these fees could have created a substantial interest for Salinas, we were unable to determine whether any of these fees were collected by Salinas due to his refusal to cooperate,” the audit said.
In a written response, Salinas said he didn’t solicit the jobs, but he was approached by the developers. He emphasized that his supervisor didn’t consider it a conflict.
“I feel that I gave full cooperation by giving you my clients contact and information numbers … and still you were unable to constitute a conflict of interest as defined by City Code, which leads me to believe this should be a closed case,” he wrote.
But the audit said Salinas cooperated with the auditors in part only after management got involved and never cooperated enough to provide documentation of how much money he earned from the developers. In an interview Thursday evening, he said he considered that private information and didn’t believe he had done anything wrong.
“The way I see it, my work wasn’t relevant to what I do at Austin Energy,” he said. “Even the bosses, when they were told of the work, didn’t see it as a conflict.”
He acknowledged that he approved plans for companies who gave him money, but said he wasn’t the person who granted final approval so he didn’t see why it was an issue.
“That’s the exact same question the city auditor asked,” he said.
In a Wednesday memo, Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent said utility management and internal human resources will begin “a comprehensive review of AE and City policies and procedures related to Outside Employment.”
The department will now have to evaluate the information and determine what discipline is justified for Salinas, Austin Energy spokesman Robert Cullick said. That review will include looking at whether Pittman violated city policies by approving the jobs. Cullick noted that it’s not normal for Austin Energy employees to have outside jobs in the industry.
“You have some things that are very clear and some things that are not clear,” Cullick said. “An audit finding like this is not common at all for Austin Energy, and it’s very serious.”
Salinas said he hasn’t been asked to end his consulting work, but, if he is, he will.
*This story has been updated to include comment from Salinas.