Friday, October 12, 2012

Ethics Board Flexes Muscle | Casey's Last Word

Let’s take this time to express our appreciation to Deputy City Manager Pat DiGiovanni.

Sure, we appreciate all his contributions to the city since he came in 2006.

I don’t know him personally, but people whose opinions I respect tell me he is good guy – smart, hardworking and honest.

But I’m especially grateful for the service DiGiovanni provided in the way he handled the controversy surrounding his departure – a controversy stirred by excellent reporting at the Express-News.

DiGiovanni will be leaving City Hall at the end of the year to head up an organization called Centro Partnership San Antonio.

It’s a new non-profit that, according to its website, “will focus on guiding and leading development in the center city.”

The controversy arose because while DiGiovanni was leading a team screening proposals from major construction companies to handle a $300 million renovation of the city’s convention center, he was negotiating with a committee from Centro Partnership to become their CEO.

On that committee was David Zachry, who heads Zachry Corporation.

DiGiovanni agreed to an employment contract with Centro on August 16.

The next day, he and the staff committee heard final presentations from construction companies vying for the massive convention center job.

DiGiovanni and his colleagues chose to recommend the Zachry Corporation in partnership with a large Phoenix firm.

City Manager Sheryl Sculley has made the point that DiGiovanni’s rating of the Zachry proposal was a little bit below the committee average.

He apparently did not work to sway his committee to recommend Zachry’s bid.

I believe it is very likely that the Zachry partnership was the best proposal.

I also find it very likely that DiGiovanni is the best candidate for the new Centro Partnership job.

Still, the city’s ethics code makes it clear that city officials should not be involved in decisions that would benefit someone while they are in employment negotiations with that person.

DiGiovanni says he didn’t violate the code because he didn’t negotiate with Zachry personally, but with a committee on which he sits.

He also says he is innocent because he didn’t make the connection between Zachry and the Zachry Corporation.

Apparently, while negotiating for a position for which he would leave his secure $210,000 job with the city he didn’t investigate the new firm’s leadership.

For example, he could have gone to the group’s website where its board is listed.

The second entry: “Vice chairman, David S. Zachry, Zachry Corporation.”

To his credit DiGiovanni admitted to the Express-News that he had made a mistake.

“I now understand how one might see this as a potential conflict," he said, adding, "I should have recused myself from the evaluation process and the committee.”

A slick politician would have left it with that, saying that he didn’t make many mistakes, but when he did it was a doozy.

But DiGiovanni didn’t leave it at that.

He asked the city’s Ethics Review Board to investigate. And he filed a long, lawyer-written letter proclaiming his innocence.

This action is what I especially want to thank DiGiovanni for.

It was a test for the Ethics Review Board.

This week the Board passed the test.

It found DiGiovanni had violated the code, although it accepted his assertion that he was unwitting.

Happily, the board rejected DiGiovanni’s arguments, and the very inventive argument of City Attorney Michael Bernard that it wasn’t a violation because Centro Partnership is a nonprofit corporation.

The Ethics Review Board’s decision accomplished two important things.

First, it puts city staff on notice that they need to be sensitive to perceived conflicts no matter how high up and well liked they are.

Second, it gave the Ethics Review Board a chance to show that it is not the limp washrag that it has sometimes appeared to be in the past.

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