Amid Austin building permit backlog, a reviewer is suspected of taking money to rush applications


Last year, as the wait to obtain residential building permits ballooned to several months, city officials began to suspect one of the employees reviewing those permits of illegally taking money to approve applications.

Now that reviewer, Edward D. Vigil, is under investigation by police after leaving his job, according to emails and a report from one of Vigil’s superiors summarizing the situation.

The records, obtained by the American-Statesman under the Texas Public Information Act, show that city investigators suspect Vigil accepted money in return for rushing permit approvals while other applications languished in the growing backlog.

“He’s a bad case, a bad employee who was doing really bad things,” Don Birkner, an assistant director of the city’s planning department, told the Statesman.

Vigil declined to comment on the investigation in an email to the Statesman, but he said the backlog was caused by poor management and a lack of accountability, adding that a manager had told him when he was hired, “Edward, this is the wild, wild west and this is how we do things here.” He didn’t name the manager.

After more than two years with the planning department’s residential review division, during which he handled hundreds of applications, Vigil quit in November following a monthlong suspension. He has since left fliers advertising his consulting services on car windshields outside the city’s One Texas Center building and has also asked for permission to solicit business in the permitting office waiting room.

The city began investigating Vigil as residential permits stacked up to the point that an initial review that is supposed to be finished in two days took up to six weeks. Officials in the planning department said the backlog was partly due to several staff departures that coincided with an upturn in the construction business.

Most of those departures happened prior to city officials developing suspicions about Vigil, though, and Birkner said Vigil is the only reviewer suspected of inappropriate behavior. The city says the backlog was cleared last month through a combination of new staff members and shifted workload.

Investigations

In June 2011, Vigil asked for permission to work a side job helping a homebuilder secure permits. His supervisor, John McDonald, saw the idea as a conflict of interest because Vigil could end up reviewing his own applications. Vigil’s request was denied, according to emails between McDonald, division manager Kathy Haught and other managers in the planning department.

Vigil’s superiors began to suspect he was acting inappropriately in early October 2012 when, on a day when he was out of the office, a permit applicant met with another reviewer and casually mentioned paying Vigil, Birkner said. That is a violation of city policies because permit reviewers are not supposed to handle payments. Birkner told Vigil at that point that “a serious allegation had been made about him” and suspended Vigil, according to a later report from Birkner to planning director Greg Guernsey summarizing the situation.

The city auditor’s office also opened an investigation into Vigil’s actions around that time, according to emails between Birkner, McDonald, Haught and Clayton Hoskins, an assistant city auditor, among other mid-level city officials.

Two applicants contacted by the planning department said they paid Vigil $200 in addition to the normal fees, according to Birkner’s report, including one applicant who wrote a check that listed Edward Vigil Development Services, not the city, as the recipient. The report also notes that, on Oct. 30, the auditor’s office said “that if investigation uncovered an additional case where funds were exchanged for services, then the investigation would in all likelihood be turned over to the police department.” The auditor’s office called in the police on Nov. 1, according to the report.

The report and emails don’t address who initiated the payments. They don’t suggest the applicants acted inappropriately.

Birkner’s report states that 112 applications reviewed by Vigil had taken five days or less to review, a much shorter turnaround time than most other applications filed since the residential permit backlog started in March 2012. Of those fast-turnaround applications, seven “strongly appeared from the writing and style of the drawings” to have been drawn up by Vigil, rather than the applicant.

The emails and report contain no estimates of how much money he might have collected.

Those 112 applications were reviewed by Vigil between May 2012 and his resignation six months later. The emails and report don’t state how many applications Vigil reviewed in his time at the city.

The district attorney’s office plans to present the case to a grand jury, according to a March 25 email between planning department officials and the police detective handling the case. No charges have been filed. The detective investigating Vigil didn’t return a call for comment.

Others kept waiting

Of the cases handled by Vigil, “an addition(al) eighteen cases were (also) identified where the normal intake process was skipped; and an additional eleven cases were identified where technical review would normally have been required but was skipped by Vigil and the cases were approved,” according to Birkner’s report. It concludes that in several cases, “mistakes were made in the review of several cases that, had they been reviewed appropriately and correctly, would have caused the applicant to make additional changes to the project that would have cost additional money.”

The report adds, “All of these cases were reviewed outside of the normal time frames and processes … to the actual disadvantage of all other customers.”

Meanwhile, other applicants were kept waiting. Finn Sigurdsson, the principal owner of ísARK Studio Design-Build, wrote in July to Assistant City Manager Sue Edwards that Vigil provided “misinformation” about zoning regulations, and “two months after my first submission I still have no answers and I feel that I’m less informed than when this process began.” Edwards instructed the planning department to address the situation, which Sigurdsson said had left him thinking “that my livelihood is on the line because I’m consistently unable to get direct answers.”

After suspending Vigil on Oct. 2, Birkner confronted Vigil with the allegations in early November. Vigil denied taking money and accused other permit reviewers of filling out paperwork and drawing up plans for applicants, according to Birkner’s report. Birkner said he interviewed those employees extensively and found no evidence of wrongdoing.

Birkner said this conclusion was backed by an assessment done of each permit reviewer’s work. The city’s computer system tracks the amount of time reviewers take to move permits through the various approval stages, and only Vigil showed a tendency to stamp permits more quickly than the typical wait, Birkner said.


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