DENVER (CBS4)– A CBS4 Investigation has found Denver’s Director of Right of Way Enforcement, Jonathan Featherston, received 21 parking citations on his personal car in 2021 and 2020. He ordered every one of the citations canceled, with Featherston now explaining that he received the tickets while he was engaging in a secret “mystery shop” campaign to test how well parking agents were doing in handing out parking tickets.
The mystery shop campaign cited by Featherston was apparently known to only one other person in the agency: his supervisor, Todd Richardson, Chief Operating Officer for the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure.
Featherston declined to answer questions and since CBS4 began investigating the citations, the city has suspended his “mystery shop” program.
The curious practice came to light when a whistleblower in the Right Of Way Enforcement division noticed what Featherston was doing and filed a complaint in September with the city Board of Ethics, suggesting Featherston was engaged in “questionable ethical conduct,” using his public position for private gain.
In his ethics complaint, which was obtained by CBS4, a supervisor under Featherston- noted that he believed what Featherston had done might amount to fraud. “Employees who receive a parking citation shall pay their citation, go before the parking magistrate or schedule a court date to contest their citation”, wrote the employee. None of that occurred with Featherston’s tickets- instead he just ordered them dismissed. The employee called
Featherston’s actions “unethical conduct by a higher ranking DOTI (Department of Transportation and Infrastructure) official. The type of conduct found has resulted in disciplinary action and/or termination with past employees.”
After being called out for the practice, Featherston wrote the ethics board stating, “I did not violate my power as a leader for the City and County of Denver.” He went on to explain that all the tickets he received were in the course of a secret “mystery shop” program” that tests the integrity of the ROWE operations. These accused actions are not an effort by myself to “abuse my power as the Director of ROWE.”
He said it was all part of a strategy to determine if employees were completing their required responsibilities in handing out parking tickets. Featherston said his supervisor, Todd Richardson, was aware of what Featherston was doing, and “I have executed it frequently since my arrival to DOTI (Department of Transportation and Infrastructure).”
Lori Weiser, Executive Director for Denver’s Board of Ethics said after screening the initial complaint, board members felt “this is something that should be investigated.” She said it took “a good amount of strength and character” for the whistleblower to come forward.
Featherston said he would periodically park his personal vehicle at a meter or timed zone to see “if an appropriate violation has been issued. If a violation was issued, then I know our field staff is doing their job and representing the City well, thus passing the mystery shop test and ensuring operational effectiveness.”
He acknowledged vehicle control agents and supervisors were never informed of what he was doing “so that the mystery shops are as effective as possible.”
Featherston said “My accuser… was not aware of the mystery shops, thus the reason he assumed my actions were a violation of City Ethics.”
Featherston said he frequently played the “mystery shop” role. While he began his job with the city in 2019, most of the citations he received occurred between March 2021 and August 2021. City records show in July and August of 2020, Featherston’s vehicle was ticketed five times with him ordering those tickets canceled, noting each of the tickets “were written in error.”
Of note, during the pandemic, city employees were allowed to park for free at the Webb municipal building, but the free parking ended in June 2021. Of the overtime parking citations Featherston received in 2021, 15 came immediately following the end of free parking at the Webb municipal building, where Featherston’s office is located. Additionally, every one of the citations put on Featherston’s SUV was handed out when the vehicle was parked within two to three blocks of his office on the fifth floor of the Webb building.
“I do see how a perception of these accusations could lead to a misunderstanding by someone if they are not fully informed of the reasons behind the actions, however, these actions were needed to perform the most effective mystery shop and keep integrity at the highest level within ROWE,” wrote Featherston.
Todd Richardson, Chief Operating Officer for the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure wrote, “I am aware of the mystery shop parking program Mr. Featherston has implemented. He has informed me that he will park in and around areas of the City to see if the ROWE team would ticket his vehicle.”
Richardson appeared unaware that of the 21 tickets issued to Featherston in 2020 and 2021, they were not from “around areas of the City” but were all issued in close proximity to Featherston’s office.
The Board of Ethics ruled 4-0 on Nov. 2 that Featherston had not violated the ethics code because his “purpose in implementing the Mystery Shop program was to improve compliance levels within ROWE and that he was not seeking to gain or benefit personally.”
However, the board cautioned that by using his own car and without standard operating procedures, “the situation is likely to recur and result in an erosion of trust in leadership within the Agency.”
Nancy Kuhn, Director of public information for DOTI, told CBS4 “We believe the Mystery Shop practice lacked adequate structure… we have suspended the program while a department-wide policy governing the use of a Mystery Shop approach is developed with greater levels of review and control.”
The whistleblower in the case left his job with Right of Way Enforcement and moved to another city agency.