Eight months after traveling to Europe in 2014 to represent Austin’s music initiatives, Ashley Buchanan emailed her boss to try to get reimbursed under the table for the “zero cost” trip with her boyfriend’s company.
“I didn’t want anyone to overhear me talking to you about this or send it on city email,” Buchanan sent in a personal email to the city’s then-music manager, Don Pitts, before suggesting she could “sneak through” an invoice for advertising to cover the cost of the trip.
“Let’s discuss,” Pitts responded. “I will work with you on this but this can never happen again.”
Ultimately, Buchanan arranged for the city to hire her boyfriend as a ghost contractor and cut him a $2,500 check for sound engineering he never did.
A divided and half-present Ethics Review Commission cleared Buchanan of wrongdoing Wednesday night after failing to reach consensus on whether she or Pitts was primarily responsible for the scheme.
Accusations against Pitts
Pitts resigned after an investigative audit detailed the fake invoice in February. He wasn’t able to attend Wednesday’s meeting. Buchanan repaid the $2,500 in 2015, after another employee discovered it. Buchanan left the city and later came forward as an “informant” alleging other inappropriate actions by Pitts, city investigators said.
While neither person still works for the city, the ethics board looked at the reimbursement scheme to determine whether a finding of wrongdoing should be reflected in Buchanan’s file.
The issue was separate from a Human Resources Department investigation into a dozen of Buchanan’s claims, which found three violations by Pitts of employee conduct policies. Records show he sent staff a copy of a resignation letter from a former job in an effort to motivate, but it came across as threatening, and he said he wouldn’t hire a temporary employee who complained that Buchanan was mistreated in the department.
A third violation involved using the slang term “hookers and blow,” which Pitts said was common in the music industry when referring to excess, but human resources investigators deemed inappropriate. Investigators also found Pitts had called Buchanan’s mother to try to talk about her performance at work, though they didn’t consider that a violation of city policies.
On Wednesday, Buchanan and sound consultant David Murray added allegations of Pitts bragging about sexual exploits and bullying her. Murray testified that Pitts’ attitude toward Buchanan seemed to sour around the time of the trip.
In an email Thursday, Pitts called it a shame to continue to air such accusations.
“Ms. Buchanan’s latest version of her story apparently includes new claims — which I categorically deny — that were not a part of her complaint to HR,” he wrote. “I don’t want to dignify her statements with any further comments.”
Payment scheme still in dispute
In testimony Wednesday evening to the commission, backed up by her boyfriend Clayton Lillard, Buchanan said she had no ill intent and was only following instructions when she sought reimbursement for her trip. She drafted the memo requesting the trip at “zero cost” to the city, but said that wording was at Pitts’ instruction, to get the trip approved by the city manager’s office on short notice.
House of Songs, a musical collaborative where Lillard worked at the time, wanted Buchanan to come on its 2014 trip to give it additional clout, he said. Buchanan represented the city at music industry meetings in Norway, Denmark, Sweden and the United Kingdom, including giving a speech at Denmark’s SPOT Festival.
When she returned, she tried to file a $3,500 travel claim, but Pitts “saw what they owed me and said ‘they’re not going to approve this,’” Buchanan said. He then gave her a couple of options for falsifying the reimbursement, she said.
In a statement in February, Pitts denied that narrative, saying he told Buchanan not to falsify the payment, then reprimanded her and made her fix it when she did. His only error, he said, wasn’t reporting what happened to the city.
Because only six of the ethics board’s 11 members were present, they needed a unanimous vote to find that Buchanan abused her position and violated city policies. Four members were inclined to give her a pass in light of testimony that Pitts was at least aware, if not the architect, of the attempts to pay Buchanan under the table.
Commission Chairman Peter Einhorn and Vice Chairman Matthew Lamon disagreed with that assessment, arguing that cutting a check to a fake employee was a serious violation, regardless of the circumstances.
“That’s fraud,” Einhorn told Buchanan. “Yeah, Mr. Pitts gave you some bad advice, but you took it.”