The Leander Ethics Commission determined June 13 there is enough evidence to recommend action against former Leander Mayor John Cowman for three ethical violations.
Cowman is accused of using his city-issued cell phone and computer for personal use, requesting and receiving reimbursement money not owed to him, and submitting a memorandum that inappropriately directed city staff. The commission found no evidence supporting three other allegations.
The commission debated the six allegations during a special 90-minute meeting. The group previously reviewed the allegations at a May 9 meeting but took no action because the short-handed commission failed to reach a four-vote majority. The Leander City Council on June 7 appointed two new members to the Ethics Commission to fill all seven seats.
Recommendations will proceed to the Leander City Council, which ultimately is responsible for taking final action on the allegations.
Recently appointed Ethics Commissioner Victor Villarreal motioned to prohibit Cowman from being eligible for any Leander appointed or elected office, but the recommendation failed in a 4-3 vote. The commission instead voted 5-2 to recommend to the council that Cowman be issued a letter of reprimand for using his city-issued electronics for personal and political campaign purposes.
Commissioner Ed Kelly said the state prohibits its employees from using public electronic devices for excessive personal use.
“I don't know how that translates to the city, but effectively, government needs to have strong policies to have that managed,” he said. “I do believe it was much more than incidental use based on the artifacts presented.”
Evidence included cell phone records and campaign literature that featured the phone's number listed as contact information.
“I understand calling the wife and kids, but when it comes down to running a campaign and putting that number on campaign literature and websites, I think that is inappropriate,” Commissioner Steve Kuwitzy said.
Commissioners nearly unanimously criticized Cowman's reimbursement request for mileage incurred while serving as a Capital Metro board member—despite using a City of Leander vehicle. He was reimbursed $52, according to Capital Metro records. The money was never repaid as Cowman claimed then-Leander City Manager Biff Johnson told the former mayor to keep the payment.
Every commissioner except Chairman Curtis Corley agreed Cowman should have paid the money back.
“Anyone who has ever taken an oath of public trust knows that this would be wrong,” Villarreal said. “Even under a reasonable standard, I think any reasonable person would conclude that submitting a personal reimbursement when you didn’t use your personal vehicle is wrong.”
The majority of ethics commissioners also criticized Cowman's personal email to City Manager Kent Cagle. The memo directed Cagle how to act—a violation of city charter, the commission concluded by a 5-2 vote.
“When I read this, it was incredibly jaw-dropping,” Villarreal said. “I would feel sorry for any city manager who would receive this.”
The letter instructed Cagle to direct two Leander City Council members to vote in a certain fashion for a specific zoning request. It was not known to Ethics Commission members whether Cagle complied with the request.
Leander City Council will review the commission's recommendations at its June 21 meeting.