The following story also appeared on The Dallas Morning News.
Dallas city officials acknowledge retirement party funds sought inappropriately
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News
February 11, 2012 Saturday
BYLINE: Steve Thompson, The Dallas Morning News
SECTION: STATE AND REGIONAL NEWS
Feb. 11--At first glance, the retirement announcement posted inside Dallas City Hall on Friday morning looked like others that frequently adorn the bulletin boards there.
It heralded a coming retirement party for Rebecca Rasor, the city's managing director of the Trinity River Corridor Project.
But then the flier said this: "Special thanks to our contributing sponsors." It listed half a dozen companies, including key city contractors on the Trinity River project.
By Friday evening, after questions from The Dallas Morning News, the fliers came down and city officials acknowledged that an employee's solicitation of money for the event from contractors was inappropriate.
One ethics expert characterized the arrangement as a "shakedown."
"It's clearly wrong," said Rita Kirk, who directs the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics & Public Responsibility at SMU. "There's no gray area."
Late Friday, City Manager Mary Suhm said she asked the Trinity Commons Foundation, which was helping organize the event, to refund the contractors' money.
"The integrity of the city is paramount," said a statement from Suhm. "The employee will be counseled and disciplined accordingly."
The employee, Sarah Standifer, is a manager in the city's Trinity Watershed Management Department. She could not be reached for comment.
According to the flier, the retirement party was to be held Feb. 24 at the White Rock Pump Station, a city venue at White Rock Lake where people can book events.
The contractors funding it included the engineering firm HNTB, which will be responsible for certifying the Trinity River levees after upcoming upgrades to make them suitable for basic flood protection. In 2009, the city hired HNTB for more than $25 million to test the levees and devise a plan to fix them.
Another contributor, Halff Associates, was previously responsible for certifying the levees and has been involved in a variety of contracts with the city. It also was one of the firms the North Texas Tollway Authority hired to advance the Trinity toll road.
Efforts on Friday to reach officials of HNTB and Halff Associates were unsuccessful. Rasor did not respond to an email seeking comment.
The flier did not mention the involvement of the Trinity Commons Foundation, a nonprofit group that advocates for the Trinity River project and helped lead the fight against the unsuccessful 2007 referendum to stop the Trinity toll road.
Asked about the flier, a city spokesman at first defended the arrangement, saying that the foundation was responsible for the party. He acknowledged that the flier should have made that clear.
"The Trinity Commons Foundation is hosting the event and funding it via private donations," said city spokesman Frank Librio in an email. "The flier announcing the event does not make that clear and is being revised to reflect that."
But that stance changed after Craig Holcomb, executive director of the foundation, told The News that a city employee solicited the money from the contractors.
Holcomb said that he and Standifer were organizing the party and that she contacted the contractors for donations. He said he wasn't sure of the exact amounts, but it was several hundred dollars per contractor. The total event was to cost a few thousand dollars or less, Holcomb said.
"It will depend on how much comes in from the contributors," Holcomb said. He defended the arrangement, saying Rasor has long served the city and deserves a decent retirement party.
"If this were a party at the Crescent Club where we were serving single-malt scotch and lobster and they were chipping in $15,000 each for this, that would be one thing," Holcomb said. "But this is not going to be that kind of event. This is going to be a beer and popcorn event."
Informed of Standifer's involvement, city officials conceded it should not have happened.
"Even though the employee had the best of intentions to offer help in the planning of the event, it is not appropriate for a staff member to make these types of calls on behalf of the outside event organizer," Librio said in an email.
Kirk, the SMU ethics expert, said it would have been OK for the foundation to organize the event and collect private donations. Then, she said, city employees presumably would not have known who contributed, or how much.
But for a city employee to ask the contractors for donations was crossing a clear boundary, she said. "There's no way that somebody that's doing business with them feels like they can say no."
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Copyright 2012 The Dallas Morning News