Former Austin-Bergstrom International Airport Executive Director Jacqueline Yaft approved about $500,000 in work for her previous employer despite being told to keep an arm's length business relationship, a city audit has found.
In December 2021, city leaders received a tip that Yaft had been “interfering in the management” of an aviation contract involving her previous employer. The investigative report, released Thursday, states that Yaft participated in approving at least four invoices, estimated at half a million dollars.
Andrew Cates, who is representing Yaft, said in a March 22 letter to City Auditor Corrie Stokes that "the report’s conclusion that Ms. Yaft acted as a city employee while having a conflict of interest is erroneous, and embodies a conclusion in search of a justification that is replete with inaccuracies and selective reporting."
Yaft resigned her position with the airport in March. Jim Smith, former executive director of Austin-Bergstrom, is back in that role in an interim capacity.
Yaft joined the airport staff in June 2019. That same month, Austin's law department notified Yaft that she must recuse herself from “any decision-making related to her former employer.”
The guidance from the law department set guardrails for her “oversight of payments” and “contract terms.” Although Yaft could receive advice from the contractor as part of its consulting contract, the legal department said, it advised her not to take any actions that could create the perception of impropriety.
Yet between January and March 2020 she approved three invoices totaling $380,000 from her former employer. In March 2020, she requested that staffers pay an additional $170,000 invoice from the contractor but did not sign the paperwork for that payment.
The auditor said Yaft failed to disclose her conflict in writing to her supervisor and did not file a conflict disclosure form until September 2022, more than three years after she was initially required to do so, the report states.
Additionally, Yaft met alone with her former employer on at least seven occasions and exchanged at least 13 emails in which she was the only airport employee in the original exchange. The audit did not spell out what the exchange was about.
Yaft previously worked for a consulting firm from October 2018 to May 2019. This same consulting firm became a city contractor for the airport in June 2019. The audit did not name the previous company.
According to the audit report, while at this consulting firm, Yaft made roughly $200,000 annually. Because she made more than $5,000 in the previous calendar year working for the firm, she had a substantial interest in the firm as defined by city code when she began working for the city.
However, the decision to contract with the firm was made before Yaft’s employment with the city. The firm was hired to provide subject matter expertise on airport development, planning and project management, and it has a contract with the city for a period of five years at a cost of $10 million.
In his letter, Cates noted that Yaft never hid her employer, as evidenced by her résumé and interview. Additionally, he said that her responsibilities as the department’s leader unavoidably required that she oversee this contractor, which was essential to the future of the airport and its expansion program.
He also said that Yaft had no financial or other interest in the contractor after she left the job, including no salary, bonus, payout or any other form of compensation from the contractor during her time with the city.
"My factual response to the Austin City Auditor investigative report speaks for itself," Yaft told the American-Statesman. "For nearly four years, I led a remarkable team that launched the modernization of (the airport), positioned the airport to recover quickly from the COVID-19 pandemic, and increased service, advancing Austin to a large hub serving close to 22 million passengers. I am proud of all I accomplished and look forward to continuing my journey in the aviation industry."
Assistant City Manager Robert Goode, who oversees the airport, said in a statement that the city has established standards of conduct for all of its employees, and ethics and integrity are fundamental.
"It is imperative that conflicts of interest be reported, and guidance be followed when conflicts of interest occur, to avoid even the suspicion of impropriety," Goode wrote.
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Audit: Ex-Austin airport director accused of conflict of interest