CPS Energy executive’s comment about ‘Mexicans’ drew ethics complaint, records show

Chief Operating Officer Fred Bonewell hampered by personnel complaints prior to being promoted in June

SAN ANTONIO – In late October 2018, then-CPS Energy Chief Safety & Security Officer Fred Bonewell opened an early morning meeting in his office by asking, “Where are all of the Mexicans?”

The ethnically insensitive comment, made in front of four fellow employees, led to a complaint being filed against Bonewell with the utility’s Ethics and Compliance Hotline a week later, internal CPS records obtained by the KSAT 12 Defenders show.

But even though the complaint was later substantiated, it would mark the start of a pattern of Bonewell avoiding formal discipline after missteps at work in recent years.

Bonewell was promoted in June to chief operating officer of CPS Energy, an elevation to the number two position at the largest public power company in the United States.

A press release announcing Bonewell’s promotion called him “a highly effective member of the CPS Energy leadership team” and stated that he “repeatedly raised the bar” on work functions under his purview.

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Bonewell, however, has been the subject of at least eight personnel complaints since January 2018. Five of them were later substantiated or caused Bonewell to receive ethics coaching or to take part in “direct conversations” with President and CEO Paula Gold Williams, a utility spokeswoman confirms.

Of those five, four complaints from February 2019 to May 2020 were related to Bonewell’s spending at work.

Bonewell has been the subject of multiple complaints since February 2019 regarding his work spending. (KSAT)

A 2019 letter received by CPS Energy’s manager of Corporate Compliance & Ethics asked why Bonewell had an “open-ended budget” for expenses including lunches, while other staff were being directed to have pot luck lunches and reduced supplies purchases.

Bonewell received a talking to from Gold Williams after his expenditures were reviewed, records show.

But consequences for Bonewell did not appear to extend beyond those conversations with his boss or training.

Bonewell’s 38-page personnel file, covering his nearly seven-year tenure with CPS Energy, does not include a single document in its corrective actions section.

“I don’t understand how CPS Energy would allow somebody like him to move up and get promoted,” said Bonewell’s former executive assistant, who asked that we call her ‘Beth.’

Beth requested that KSAT conceal her voice and identity to protect her anonymity at her new job.

Beth served as Bonewell’s executive assistant from January 2020 to late May 2020, records show, and she described her short four-month tenure as being treated more like a servant than an assistant.

“I’ve been an assistant supporting chiefs for over 20 years, and I’ve never had someone treat me...pretty much I felt like a ghost,” said Beth. “Honestly, he made me feel like I didn’t have a purpose there, or my only purpose was to get him coffee and get him meals.”

Beth said within two weeks of starting her position last year she was contacted by CPS Energy’s ethics department and told that Bonewell was being investigated for possible misuse of a utility purchasing card.

She said an outside attorney for the utility later called and asked questions about Bonewell’s spending habits.

“It kind of sounded like they wanted me to be aware and to notice and to contact them if I saw anything,” said Beth.

Weeks later, with the country in the early stages of the first wave of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, Beth said she got a call from one of Bonewell’s chiefs of staff.

“Like my second day working remote I was called by his chief of staff and said why didn’t I provide lunch for Fred,” Beth recalled.

She said she then had to come out of isolation at home to find food downtown even though a vast majority of establishments had shut down.

Beth pointed out that the building occupied by CPS employees at the time, its former headquarters at the corner of Navarro St. and Villita St., had an on-site cafeteria.

Beth said she eventually got a caterer at CPS to agree to make special meals for Bonewell.

Downtown San Antonio during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. (KSAT)

“Here I am asking for a special favor in the middle of COVID. It’s a pandemic. Everybody is pretty high stress, on high alert. But yet here’s this person asking me to make sure he has lunch,” said Beth.

In late May 2020, a day before Beth left the company, she filed a formal complaint with Corporate Compliance & Ethics detailing the search for meals during the pandemic as well as outlining concerns she had with how Bonewell and members of his staff were using purchasing cards.

The complaint, which the Defenders obtained a copy of, accused Bonewell of having two members of his staff make questionable purchases since Bonewell was being watched. Bonewell would then approve the purchases, the complaint alleges.

Beth said the utility’s ethics department never provided her an update on her formal complaint. A CPS spokeswoman said that specific complaint was addressed during a direct conversation between Bonewell and Gold Williams.

CPS officials did not respond to multiple requests from the Defenders to interview Bonewell for this story.

Officials with the utility late last week handed over a copy of purchases made by Bonewell and two staff members named in Beth’s May 2020 complaint, but have so far failed to produce any receipts from those purchases.

“CPS Energy recently laid a billion dollar rotten egg and we’re stuck with that.”

Last month, on the eve of San Antonio City Council passing a record $3.1 billion budget, District 1 Councilman Mario Bravo publicly advocated for the need to closely examine the inner workings of CPS Energy.

Bravo, a former chairman of the utility’s environmental stakeholder group, spoke from the dais about wanting to improve the utility’s transparency, accountability, sustainability and financial health.

San Antonio District 1 City Councilman Mario Bravo during a meeting last month. (KSAT)

“We clearly have problems at CPS Energy right now, and we need to start reviewing that,” said Bravo, who pushed for a $200,000 independent study to look at CPS’ management structure and corporate culture.

Moments after making the comments, Bravo again spoke from the dais and quoted from a Defenders investigation that had just been posted online.

The story revealed the alleged mistreatment of senior leadership of CPS Energy by Gold Williams. The allegations were detailed in a 2020 complaint the utility was forced to hand over to the Defenders following a ruling from the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

“And so I want to reiterate that these studies, including the management structure of CPS Energy, the corporate culture of CPS Energy, we can’t wait six months to begin those studies,” said Bravo during the meeting.

The next day, during the formal budget presentation, Bravo sounded the alarm a third time while speaking from the dais.

“I want to remind everybody that CPS Energy recently laid a billion dollar rotten egg and we’re stuck with that,” said Bravo, referring to the utility’s massive bills incurred during February’s winter storm from the purchase of natural gas and power.

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The utility has already spent millions of dollars fighting those bills in close to 20 lawsuits.

Bravo eventually abstained from the budget vote, but told the Defenders he got an assurance from fellow Councilman John Courage that the independent study request will be discussed and explored at a future municipal utilities committee meeting.

“These comments were based on my interactions with CPS Energy and frustrations that I’ve encountered and also the interactions of other people I know who have relayed those messages to me,” Bravo said during a virtual interview with the Defenders. “CPS Energy is a public utility. However, in my experience they’ve operated more like a private utility.”

Bravo declined to discuss specific personnel complaints against Bonewell, stating that the city attorney’s office had requested that council members not comment on personnel matters. Bravo said he interpreted that request to mean CPS personnel matters as well, since the utility is an extension of the city.

“CPS Energy has an independent board. So this is the job for the mayor who is on that board and the other members of the board who are appointed by council to take on, to make sure and maintain a work environment that is safe and productive and benefits the city of San Antonio,” said Bravo.

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About the Authors:

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined the KSAT 12 Defenders in 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat. He provides restaurant health reports for KSAT's "Behind the Kitchen Door." Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.

Joshua Saunders is an Emmy award-winning photographer/editor who has worked in the San Antonio market for the past 20 years. Joshua works in the Defenders unit, covering crime and corruption throughout the city.