Bexar County hires ombudsperson following string of complaints from employees

Allison Highley began work Oct. 28

Bexar County Commissioners Court. (Joshua Saunders, KSAT)

SAN ANTONIO – Bexar County officials have hired an ombudsperson following a string of internal and federal employment complaints against management, the KSAT 12 Defenders have confirmed.

Allison Highley was hired October 28 and will be under the direction of County Manager David Smith.

The county’s job description for her new position states that she “will provide advocacy for fairness, source of support, information and acts as liaison between conflicting parties” and will “provide neutral and confidential assistance to employees in order to resolve conflicts.”

County officials have so far not released details of Highley’s salary or why her hiring was not brought before county commissioners for approval.

A source who was not authorized to speak to media but has knowledge of the contract told KSAT Highley will be paid $150,000 a year by the county.

A LinkedIn profile for her states she has worked for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs since 2015, most recently as chief counsel for the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. Highley is also a former Equal Employment Opportunity Commission practitioner, according to the profile.

Multiple county employees briefed on the hiring of Highley have criticized the decision to have her report to Smith because he is also the supervisor of Assistant County Manager Tina Smith-Dean, who has been named in four federal employment complaints since last fall.

These employees, who requested anonymity from KSAT out of fear of being targeted by county leadership, say that hierarchy could be a conflict of interest.

Assistant County Manager Tina Smith-Dean. (KSAT)

The latest, filed earlier this month by a longtime county employee, accuses Smith-Dean of retaliation, according to multiple sources.

A second employee who named Smith-Dean in two Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaints last year, Alexandria Millan, was removed from her budget analyst position in late May and reassigned to the county’s purchasing department in another building.

County officials have claimed Millan was reassigned because she was uniquely qualified to help several county agencies manage COVID-19-related expenditures.

Millan’s attorney, however, said the move was punishment for speaking out against Smith-Dean, after Millan accused her of unfair treatment at work and retaliation.

Memo: Bexar County Manager David Smith directed employees to receive absolution

A third employee accused Smith-Dean late last year of harassment and bullying as part of an internal complaint.

An outside firm, Kelmar Global Investigations, was brought in to examine the allegations.

Smith subsequently informed the attorney representing the woman who filed the complaint that Kelmar had concluded its report and, based on a legal review of it by the district attorney’s office, the allegations against Smith-Dean could not be substantiated.

County officials have refused to release a copy of the report and claimed in late May that some of the information was protected by attorney-client privilege. In late July, officials with the Texas Attorney General’s Office ruled that the information could be withheld from the public despite KSAT’s appeal.

County officials, to date, have refused to confirm how much money was paid to Kelmar and its investigators to put the report together, despite repeated requests over several months from the Defenders asking for that information.

The employee has now filed a federal employment complaint against Smith-Dean related to the same allegations she made in her initial internal complaint.

That employee was given a proposed termination in early June, after she made the internal complaint, because several co-workers said she intimated them by recording video of them outside an elevator in the Paul Elizondo Tower.

She retired weeks later, but has denied she was recording employees.

The hiring of Highley also comes after Precinct 4 Commissioner Tommy Calvert earlier this year asked that the county draft a whistleblower protection policy “so that any member of the county staff is protected from retaliation.”

Calvert did not respond to multiple requests seeking comment for this story.

About the Author:

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined the KSAT 12 Defenders in 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat. Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.