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 Surfing New Wave Open Government

Symposium panelist says local efforts show
potential but Austin not open government leader

by Mark Henricks
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted Thursday April 23, 2015 10:44am

New technology and new ideas promise to make government more open than ever, perhaps even someday replacing politicians with direct decision-making by citizens, according to panelists in a discussion of innovation in open government held this month at Austin City Hall. At the same time attendees were warned of the risk of disenfranchising those who lack access to technology. And, while panelists lauded Austin’s image as a center of technology, the city government’s reputation for openness and transparency was said to be unremarkable.

The session took place April 9, 2015, as part of the City of Austin’s Open Government Symposium. This is the second city-sponsored symposium since 2012, when all City of Austin elected officials agreed to deferred prosecution after an Austin Bulldog investigation into their open meetings violations.

Kerry O’ConnorKerry O’Connor Kerry O'Connor, the city’s first chief innovation officer, moderated the panel. She was joined by Mary Beth Goodman, a senior fellow with the Washington, D.C, think tank, Center for American Progress, and Nathaniel Heller, managing director of the Results for Development Institute, a Washington, D.C. economic development research group.

Mary Beth GoodmanMary Beth GoodmanCities like Austin are on the front line in the effort to make government more transparent, according to Goodman, who was formerly director for international economic affairs on the White House national security staff. “The more we've gotten into the process, the more we've learned that citizens want to engage first and foremost at the city level,” Goodman said.

Nathaniel HellerNathaniel HellerHeller, much of whose work has dealt with less-developed countries around the world, cited crowdsourcing as an example of openness that is well-suited for city government. “This is being experimented with nationally, but it's working better at the local level,” he said. Examples of using crowdsourcing in government include holding challenges and contests to get citizens to contribute their ideas about how to solve problems delivering needed city services.

O’Connor, who took over the city innovation office in 2014 after working for the U.S. State Department, said Austin has employed crowdsourcing-type tools with mixed success. “It is a nascent movement and takes a little practice to get it right,” she said. City efforts to encourage citizen contributions include CodeNEXT, an initiative to create a new land development code addressing affordability and other issues. The innovation office partnered with three volunteer working groups to generate recommendations for the program, but it still a work in progress.

Openness impedes efficiency?

 
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(2 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

Ethics Bills Face Complex Dynamics

Open government legislation would move public
official investigations, open financial reports

by Mark Henricks
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Part 4 in a Series
Posted Monday April 20, 2015 2:42pm

Although some proposed legislation in the current session promises to improve public access to information, a tangled web of factors including fear of the unknown and lack of a major scandal will likely keep state legislators from enacting major open government and ethics legislation.

Denise DavisDenise DavisThat was the consensus of participants in a panel discussion on Legislative Developments held April 9, 2015, as part of the City of Austin’s Open Government Symposium. Moderator, Cary Grace, an assistant city attorney and interim deputy officer of the city’s Intergovernmental Relations Office, was joined by panelists Tim Sorrells, former general counsel of the Texas Ethics Commission, and Denise Davis, former chief of staff to Texas House Speaker Joe Straus and currently a lobbyist and partner in law firm Davis Kaufman.

Davis, who also formerly served as parliamentarian and special counsel to the Texas House of Representatives, said new members often arrive in the Capitol intending to pass ethics legislation but most waver because of worries about potential unintended consequences of new ethics laws.

The specter of possibly having to back-pedal on proposals or even wind up lobbying to kill their own bills generally scares them off for good, she said. “You don’t want to be the person that has killed an ethics bill,” Davis explained. “That's the kind of thing that gets you on 10 worst lists.”

Attorney Sorrells spent 12 years at the Texas Ethics Commission, which among other things advises legislators about the propriety of actions they are considering. He said that the attitude about ethical behavior among legislators is that unless something is being done secretly, it is probably acceptable. “The way it’s working in Texas is, you can do it as long as you tell somebody about it,” he said.

Legislators’ comfort with that attitude, coupled with unwillingness to initiate legislation that could require more rules, means no major change can be expected in Texas open government laws unless something happens to spur it, Sorrells said. Legislators tend to be reactive rather than proactive when it comes to ethics and open government legislation. As an example, he pointed to the 1971 Sharpstown stock fraud scandal. That episode produced federal criminal charges against the attorney general and state insurance commissioner and allegations of bribery that went all the way to the governor’s office.

Sharpstown scandal triggered reforms

 
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(1 vote, average 5.00 out of 5)

 Open Government Aids Defendants Too

Criminal cases opened through Michael Morton
Act makes big difference for prosecutors as well

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Part 3 in a Series
Posted Wednesday April 15, 2015 11:01pm

Gary Cobb, Betty Blackwell and Craig McDonaldGary Cobb, Betty Blackwell and Craig McDonald“Prosecutors could read to us what they wanted us to know,” said defense attorney Betty Blackwell in describing the old rules for discovery in criminal cases. “There were no depositions, no interrogatories, no witnesses. All we (defense attorneys) were entitled to ... was the indictment.

“It was a trial by ambush.”

Blackwell, of the Austin-based Law Office of Betty Blackwell, in 2001 served as the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association’s first female president. Last week she participated in a panel discussion on Litigation Developments at the City of Austin’s Open Government Symposium held April 9, 2015.

The discussion was moderated by Gary Cobb, who for 25 years has been with the Travis County District Attorney’s office and currently directs its Grand Jury and Intake Division. The panel also included Craig McDonald, executive director of Texans for Public Justice, whose criminal complaints resulted in the indictments of Governor Rick Perry and then-U.S. Representative Tom DeLay.

Blackwell and Cobb talked about the impact the Michael Morton Act (SB 1611) has had on the discovery rules governing criminal cases since it was signed into law by Governor Perry in 2013. The legislation, authored by State Senators Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock) and Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), was enacted in the wake of Morton’s exoneration after serving 25 years in prison for murdering his wife. Morton was convicted because prosecutors withheld key evidence. He was freed only after DNA testing pointed to another suspect.

New discovery rules boost criminal defense

 
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(3 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

 County Attorney Reports Lessons Learned

His investigation of Austin City Council’s open
meetings violations resulted in improvements

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Part 2 in a Series
Posted Wednesday April 15, 2015 10:26am

The 21-month investigation of violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act by a previous Austin mayor and council members taught public officials some hard lessons, cost city taxpayers more than $600,000, and brought about important reforms.

David EscamillaDavid EscamillaAt the April 9, 2015, Open Government Symposium hosted by the City of Austin, Travis County Attorney David Escamilla talked about that criminal investigation during his presentation of “Views From a County Attorney’s Office.” He praised the city’s improvements that resulted from it.

Escamilla, former president of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association and currently the Texas director for the National District Attorneys Association, said one of the key changes was for the city to establish and host an online City of Austin Council Message Board. The message board allows City Council members and authorized staff to post messages about, and hold online discussions of, city business that the public can also follow on the Internet.

It was “genius” to come up with this technological solution, Escamilla said, because it offers a workable solution to the complaints that elected officials, confronted with restrictions placed on deliberations by the Texas Open Meetings Act, sometimes try to make about the need to talk to each other outside of public meetings.

“The public’s right to know outweighs efficiency,” he said.

Escamilla said only two governmental agencies in the state are using an online message board, as authorized by State Senator Kirk Watson’s SB 1297 enacted in 2013 and codified as Government Code Section 551.006.

“Now they can have those discussions on the Internet and you get to watch what happened,” he said.

While the message board permits a free flowing discussion among elected officials about public business and public policy, and allows the public to monitor the dialogue, the legislation specifically prohibits the governmental body from voting or taking any action that is required to be taken in an open meeting.

The Travis County Commissioners Court recently approved establishing a similar message board, said Escamilla, who has served in the county attorney’s office for 30 years and became county attorney in 2003. When running for reelection in 2004, 2008, and 2012, he was unopposed in both the Democratic primary and general election.

Bulldog investigation uncovered violations

 
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(1 vote, average 5.00 out of 5)

 Why Acting Ethically, Legally Matters

Many a high-profile scandal persisted for
years because nobody stepped forward

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Part 1 in a Series
Posted Tuesday April 14, 2015 9:41am

A president of the United States used his office to have sex with an intern. A Penn State assistant football coach was convicted of 45 counts of child sex abuse. And a world famous comedian is a serial rapist?

Bill CosbyBill CosbyWhat Bill Clinton, Jerry Sandusky, and Bill Cosby have in common is that nobody stepped forward or spoke up to expose these men early on when they violated women and children.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a journalist who wrote an article about Cosby published in 2008 by The Atlantic, knew about the rape allegations and barely mentioned them in what he wrote.

The year 2008 was a time when Barack Obama was running for president and Cosby was making speeches he said were “call-outs” to black men for self-reliance and striving.

The only mention of Cosby’s misdeeds with women in Coates’ 7,000-word article was literally a parenthetical remark: “(In 2006, Cosby settled a civil lawsuit filed by a woman who claimed that he had sexually assaulted her; other women have come forward with similar allegations that have not gone to court.)”

Last year, as a growing number of women were publicly telling their stories about being Cosby’s victims, Coates looked back at his failure to fully report on the rape allegations, noting he was having his first big shot at writing for a national magazine. “But Cosby was such a big target that I thought it was only a matter of time before someone published a hard-hitting investigative piece. And besides, I had in my hand the longest, best, and most personally challenging piece I’d ever written.

“It was not enough,” he wrote in The Atlantic of November 19, 2014.

“I don't have many writing regrets. But this is one of them,” Coates wrote. “I regret not saying what I thought of the accusations, and then pursuing those thoughts. I regret it because the lack of pursuit puts me in league with people who either looked away, or did not look hard enough. I take it as a personal admonition to always go there, to never flinch, to never look away.”

A call for responsibility

 
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(2 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

 City Holding Open Government Symposium

Continuing legal education credits for lawyers and
great information for advocates of open government

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted Wednesday April 8, 2015 11:15am

The City of Austin will hold its second Open Government Symposium tomorrow, Thursday, April 9 at City Hall.

The all-day event will offer seven different presentations, some of which are running concurrently to provide options for attendees. The sessions will cover ethics, litigation developments, legislative developments, open government innovations in the state and internationally, and open government issues beyond the city.

David EscamillaDavid EscamillaTravis County Attorney David Escamilla is on the program to speak at the Symposium and is enthusiastic about the city again holding this important event.

“By holding this symposium the City of Austin is recognizing that open government and transparency are important,” Escamilla said.

Escamilla is the official who conducted a 21-month investigation of the previous Austin City Council’s longstanding practice of violating the Texas Open Meetings Act, by holding regularly scheduled two-on-one and one-on-one private meetings, in effect establishing a “walking quorum” that constituted a conspiracy to evade the Act.

That investigation was triggered by the The Austin Bulldog’s investigative report that exposed the illegal practice.

Bill AleshireBill AleshireAttorney Bill Aleshire of Aleshire Law PC, a strong advocate for increased government accountability—and The Austin Bulldog’s attorney for two lawsuits involving the City of Austin’s refusal to comply with the Texas Public Information Act—said, “I hope the ‘New Way Forward’ (advocated by Mayor Steve Adler) will have a subtitle ‘Let’s Get Real,’ and nowhere in the City’s management is there more need to get real than in the pretense City Manager Marc Ott’s administration has given to transparency in government. 

 
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(2 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

 Part 2: The $6.3 Million Election

Winners took office carrying almost $600,000 in debt,
while 34 defeated must raise or lose nearly $500,000

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Part 2 in a Series
Posted Monday April 6, 2015 9:39am
Updated Tuesday April 7, 2015 8:56am

“Many people are in the dark when it comes to money,
and I’m going to turn on the lights. — Suze Orman

Who could have imagined that the scramble for 11 spanking new political posts to oversee a new form of governance for the City of Austin would unleash a torrent of political spending, the likes of which Austin had never seen?

Or—perhaps even more startling—that 43 of the competing candidates collectively would pour $1.3 million of their own money into the quest?

These staggering totals captured The Austin Bulldog’s attention and prompted an extensive examination. This entailed reviewing campaign finance reports filed by all 78 candidates, covering all five reporting cycles, from July 2014 through January 2015. Our examination also sorted out the full particulars for the $1.3 million that the candidates loaned to their campaigns or spent outright in hopes of reimbursement.

For you who wonder who spent how much to win or lose a place on the council dais, this one’s for you. You’re invited to follow me, the guy with the flashlight, as we jump down the rabbit hole of campaign finance as it was utilized in the one-off election of 2014.

Steve AdlerSteve AdlerYou already know Steve Adler won election in 2014 and buried chief opponent Mike Martinez with a landslide mayoral runoff margin of 67-33 percent. Adler also set all-time records by spending more than $1.5 million on his campaign, of which more than $387,000 came out of his own deep, deep pockets.

In round figures the 78 candidates, including Adler, spent $5.6 million campaigning. Political action committees (PACs) dished out $726,000 in direct expenditures to bring total spending to an astronomical, for Austin, $6.3 million. (PAC spending was detailed in Part 1 of this series published March 27.)

While money is an important tool for an otherwise viable candidate who spends it effectively, the best funded candidates did not win all the council districts. Did they misspend? Did they flub it on the campaign trail? Only the voters know for sure. But, money be damned, the fact is, four of the 10 winning district candidates were outspent by their opponents—some only by little, some by huge amounts.

These results seem to bear out an essential truth about political contests: you don’t absolutely need more money than your opponent, but you do need enough to run a viable campaign.

For those who like to swim through deeply detailed spreadsheets, take a deep breath and dive into the Campaign Finance Analiysis for 2014 Election of Mayor and Council Candidates. This compilation lays out the contributions, expenditures, loans, and cash on hand for each of the 78 candidates, through all five reporting cycles, and provides totals for each race. And for good measure the analysis delves into the loans, loans recouped, and PAC spending.

If you’re not doing the deep dive that’s fine. Just hang on, read the rest, and check out the handy charts that capture important highlights.

Campaign savvy beats cash, sometimes

 
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(3 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

 Statesman Acquires The Austin Bulldog

Surprise announcement comes on fifth
anniversary of launching the Bulldog

© The Austin Bulldog
Posted Wednesday April 1, 2015 1pm

Ken MartinKen MartinKen Martin, founder, editor and publisher of The Austin Bulldog launched its website April 1, 2010, saying, “We don’t take ourselves too seriously but we take our reporting very seriously.”

On the fifth anniversary of the organization that has relentlessly pursued investigative reporting in the public interest as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit focusing on holding local government accountable, comes the news that the Austin American-Statesman will expand its reach into local government coverage by pushing into the areas covered by the Bulldog.

Debbie HiottDebbie Hiott“We have the resources to expand the Bulldog’s focus and give local government agencies the same bruising coverage afforded to unlucky state agencies that have wandered into our crosshairs,” said Statesman Editor Debbie Hiott.

The Statesman came out on top after a bidding war broke out among the New York Times, NPR, Fox News, AlJazeera America, and The Guardian. The Chinese People’s Daily also wanted to bid but was excluded by U.S. trade regulations. “We just wanted to keep local control to the extent possible,” Martin said.

The Statesman recently swept up most of the major awards in statewide journalism competition—including on March 29 being named Newspaper of the Year for the second consecutive year. Statesman reporter J. David McSwane won the large newspaper division for Star Investigative Report of the Year.

A long strange trip

 
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(3 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

 10-1 Elections Cost $6.3 Million

Political action committees laid out $726,000
for independent expenditures to influence voters

by Ken Martin
© 2015 The Austin Bulldog
Part 1 in a Series
Posted Friday March 27, 2015 1:59pm

“Money doesn't talk, it swears.” — Bob Dylan

The chief poet of rock ’n’ roll might have been talking about the use of money in politics when at age 24 he sang these words in one of the songs on his 1965 album, ”Bringing It All Back Home”

Twenty-three local political action committees (PACs) certainly believed, or at least hoped, that spending $726,210 would influence Austin voters to elect—or not elect—certain candidates for mayor and City Council.

When the money spent by these independent PACs is combined with funds spent by the candidates themselves it all adds up to an eye-popping grand total of $6,298,059.

Independent expenditures in Texas law are known as “direct campaign expenditures” made without the prior consent or approval of the candidate who benefited. They are not counted as contributions to the candidate.

The Austin Bulldog reviewed the direct expenditures in every report the 23 PACs filed and recorded them in a spreadsheet. The direct expenditures funded by PACs paid for a wide variety of goods and services including consultants, advertisements, printed mail pieces and the postage to send them, for door hangers, campaign signs, canvassers, phone banks, and block walkers.

The big picture

 
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(3 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

 Want More Open Government?

Key lawmaker and nonprofit advocacy group
pitch for public support on pending legislation

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted Thursday March 19, 2015 3:01pm

Laura Prather, Todd Hunter, Arif PanjuLaura Prather, Todd Hunter, Arif PanjuState Representative Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi), who chairs the powerful House Calendars Committee, and the two co-chairs of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas laid out the details of proposed legislation that the press and other open government advocates hope will succeed. And some they wish are tossed into the trash heap.

Among the array of proposed legislation are bills that if enacted would:

• Empower governmental agencies to compel public officials to turn over records that constitute public information,

• Make public the records of campus police at private institutions of higher education,

• Reemphasize that journalists may legally report on whistleblower allegations of public concern,

• Raise the bar for closing juvenile courts to the public,

• Remove public notices from printed newspapers,

• Disregard public information requests from non-Texans, and

• Authorize the Texas Attorney General to prosecute violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act or Texas Public Information Act when local county and district attorneys decline to do so.

Hunter, who has served eight terms in the Texas House, four as a Democrat and four as a Republican, authored two of these proposed bills.

 
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(1 vote, average 5.00 out of 5)

 Appeals Court Demands E-mail Release

Third Court of Appeals decision once again requires
e-mails on private account or devices to be released

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted Tuesday March 10, 2015 1:30pm
Updated Tuesday March 10, 2015 2:43pm
Updated Tuesday March 10, 2015 3:58pm

Tommy AdkissonTommy AdkissonOne can only imagine what’s in the e-mails that a San Antonio mayoral candidate wants to keep secret, but Tommy Adkisson lost another round in his ongoing legal battle to keep from releasing e-mails about official Bexar County business that he conducted using private e-mail accounts or devices as a county commissioner during his recently ended term of office. This legal warfare has been going on for three years.

The Austin-based Third Court of Appeals on Friday upheld the trial court’s decision that these e-mails sent or received by then-Bexar County Commissioner Adkisson are public records and must be released to the requestor.

George HydeGeorge HydeAttorney George Hyde of Austin-based Denton Navarro Rocha & Bernal PC has and still represents both Adkisson and Bexar County.

“I have only recently informed my clients of the decision issued Friday and await instructions at this point,” Hyde said in an e-mail Monday in reply to questions posed by The Austin Bulldog. “Based on the decision upon first read, it appears it creates more questions than it answers for local government.”

Houston-based attorney Joseph Larsen, special counsel to Sedgwick LLP, and a longtime volunteer with the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, has a far different analysis of the Third Court’s opinion.

Jospeh LarsenJospeh Larsen“I think this is an excellent and well-reasoned opinion, and is spot-on correct,” Larsen told The Austin Bulldog.  But he added, “I think we still need a legislative solution because the opinion only applies to county officers, and does not yet have statewide reach.”

Larsen said, “It’s possible that this decision—the logic of the analysis—applies to non-county governmental bodies and governmental officers, but it does not bind them. Therefore we need to propose legislation establishing custodianship statewide and through all governmental bodies.”

This is an important case. In 2011 The Austin Bulldog sued the mayor, council members and City of Austin to get e-mails about city business these elected officials exchanged on private accounts, forcing them to release communications that were not only embarrassing but indicative of orchestrated efforts to evade the Texas Open Meetings Act by debating high-profile issues such as building a half-billion-dollar water treatment plant and a controversial lawsuit settlement involving the shooting death of a young African-American man.

The 33-page opinion of the Third Court of Appeals (linked at the bottom of this story) states the e-mails about official business are public records.

“To conclude otherwise would lead to the absurd result that the Commissioner could conduct all his official County business through his personal e-mail accounts without it being subject to the PIA (Texas Public Information Act), even if the same correspondence would be subject to the PIA if he used his County e-mail account.”

Adkisson had contended that he had a right of privacy in his e-mail communications, an argument soundly rejected by the Third Court.

“When the Commissioner voluntarily took on his elected office, including his role as the public-information officer for his office, he relinquished some of the privacy expectations of a private citizen, at least in connection with his work as a County Commissioner. As an elected County official and the public-information officer for his County office, the Commissioner would or should have known that documents created or received by him, his employees, or his office in the transaction of public business were records potentially subject to review under the PIA or for any variety of other reasons, regardless of where they are physically located.”

Public information request triggered lawsuit

 
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(2 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

 Commissioner Daugherty’s Criminal Case Delayed

Statute of limitations will expire in May, attorney
investigating alleged offense had health issues

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted Monday February 23, 2015 9:41am

Gerald DaughertyGerald DaughertyA court hearing scheduled last Thursday on the criminal complaint against Travis County Precinct 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty was not held.

The doors of the designated 390th Judicial District Court were locked. A judicial aide said the attorney investigating the complaint and assigned judge had agreed not to proceed with the criminal case until a related civil lawsuit filed against Daugherty was resolved.

Leslie B. Vance of Marble Falls was appointed “county attorney pro tem” to investigate the complaint filed 11 months ago by William G. “Bill” Bunch of the Save Our Springs Alliance. Travis County Attorney David Escamilla was recused because the Travis County Commissioners Court controls his budget. Judge James E. Morgan, retired from the 220th Judicial District Court with jurisdiction over Bosque, Comanche, and Hamilton counties, was assigned to hear the case.

The complaint, supported by Daugherty’s testimony in a deposition in a related civil case filed November 12, 2013, claimed that Daugherty had violated the Texas Public Information Act by not turning over his correspondence related to the proposed controversial State Highway 45 Southwest.

At the time the complaint was filed, Daugherty told The Austin Bulldog it was “nothing more than a rehash of the allegations they brought in the civil suit. I don’t put anything past Bill Bunch or the SOS organization to thwart the will of the people,” he said, referring to efforts to halt construction of SH45 SW.

Bill BunchBill BunchBunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, was also at the 390th Judicial District Court for the Thursday hearing and was disappointed to learn it would not be held.

Bunch said, “The Texas Public Information Act has distinct civil and criminal remedies. The (civil and criminal) cases are separate.  My understanding is that Judge (Billy Ray) Stubblefield (who assigned Vance to the case) referred our complaint for prosecution. The documents we provided in our complaint, including Commissioner Daugherty’s sworn testimony, were sufficient to file charges and take to a jury. We did most of the work upfront. So I don't understand the lack of action.

 
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(14 votes, average 3.21 out of 5)

 Zimmerman Paid Wife For Campaign

Using campaign funds to pay a candidate’s spouse
is prohibited by law, and is a Class A misdemeanor

Investigative Report by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted Tuesday February 3, 2015 10:39am

Council Member Don ZimmermanCouncil Member Don ZimmermanDistrict 6 Council Member Don Zimmerman, after being elected but before being sworn in, used campaign funds to pay his wife “Salaries/Wages/Contract Labor” in the amount of $2,000 for “campaign office and field work.”

This may be a violation of Texas Election Code Section 253.041, which prohibits a candidate or officeholder from knowingly making or authorizing a payment from political contributions if the payment is made for personal services rendered by the spouse or dependent child of the candidate or officeholder.

Such a violation would be a Class A misdemeanor offense, according to Texas Election Code Section 253.041(c). If adjudged guilty, a Class A misdemeanor offense is punishable by a fine not to exceed $4,000, confinement in jail not to exceed one year, or both the fine and confinement, per Penal Code Section 12.21.

The $2,000 payment to Zimmerman’s wife is reflected in the last item on the last page of the Campaign Finance Report filed January 15, 2015, by Zimmerman’s campaign treasurer and attorney Stephen Casey.

Zimmerman did not return calls to comment on this story in reply to specific messages left yesterday with his Chief of Staff, Joe Petronis, and other council office staffer Trent Pool.

Stephen CaseyStephen CaseyCasey himself, or rather his law firm, was paid $500 on November 25, 2014, for “legal consulting,” according to Zimmerman’s Campaign Finance Report filed December 8, 2014.

Casey also did not respond to a message left on his office telephone yesterday requesting comment about the $2,000 payment.

The payment to Zimmerman’s wife was discovered by The Austin Bulldog while reviewing expenditures in the 61 Campaign Finance Reports filed by the 11 winning candidates for mayor and City Council. (An overview of the research is provided in Review of City Council Campaign Finance Reports for Prohibited Expenditures.)

Our review indicates that only the Campaign Finance Reports for Zimmerman and Kathie Tovo included questionable expenditures.

Tovo campaign also may have erred

 
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(10 votes, average 4.60 out of 5)

 Almanza Gave $10,000 to PODER

Campaign finance report indicates campaign funds
given day after runoff election to nonprofit she heads

Investigative Report by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted Tuesday January 26, 2015 3:57pm

Susana AlmanzaSusana AlmanzaSusana Almanza lost the District 3 City Council runoff election December 16 to her brother, Sabino “Pio” Renteria, and the next day she donated $10,000 of her campaign funds to the nonprofit she heads as director and board member.

Almanza reported the $10,000 donation to PODER on page 14 of her Campaign Finance Report filed January 15, 2015, listing PODER’s address as 4926-A E. Cesar Chavez.

Asked if she sought legal advice before donating the $10,000 to PODER, Almanza told The Austin Bulldog, “No, I was told that you could donate to any nonprofit.”

Almanza is one of three runoff candidates who each received checks for $27,988.58 from the Austin Fair Campaign Finance Fund. The Austin Bulldog’s investigative report published December 1 indicated that neither Almanza nor her District 3 opponent Renteria were entitled to the funds because they signed the Austin Fair Campaign Contract too late.

The Austin City Charter, Article III, Section 8(F)(3) requires that a candidate no later than 90 days after an election “shall distribute the balance of funds received from political contributions in excess of any remaining expenses for the election: (a) to the candidate's or officeholder's contributors on a reasonable basis, (b) to a charitable organization, or (c) to the Austin Fair Campaign Fund.

But, while leftover campaign funds may be donated to a charitable organization, state law prohibits conversion of political contributions to the personal use of the candidate.

As director and board member of PODER, Almanza might exercise some control over how the $10,000 she donated to the organization with campaign funds will be spent.

Almanza told The Austin Bulldog that PODER’s board of directors will decide how the $10,000 will be used when it meets in about a week and she will recommend the money be used to pay students who participate in PODER’s Young Scholars for Justice program, a summer program founded in 1995.

Almanza still maintains $3,455.78 in political contributions on hand and said she would decide later how those funds will be used.

Fair Campaign Funds key source

 
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(5 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

Locals United Against Citizens United

Pay 2 Play documentary, panel discussion focus
on reducing influence of big money in elections

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted Friday January 23, 2015 11:52am
Updated Friday January 23, 2015 12:24pm

Panelists Craig McDonald, Sara Smith, Smitty Smith, Caroline Homer, and Christina PuentesPanelists Craig McDonald, Sara Smith, Smitty Smith, Caroline Homer, and Christina PuentesOn the fifth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s January 21, 2010, decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, a sold-out showing of a documentary, followed by an hour-long panel discussion, indicates there is considerable local interest in overturning corporate personhood and money as free speech.

The film by John Ennis, Pay 2 Play: Democracy’s High Stakes, released in September 2014, was shown to a full house of about a hundred people at the Alamo Drafthouse Village Wednesday evening. The 90-minute documentary focuses on multiple congressional elections in Ohio, the corrosive effects of unlimited spending from such figures as the Koch Brothers, and features numerous nationally known experts, among them Professor Noam Chomsky, Professor Lawrence Lessig, economist Robert Reich, and convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

The film asserts that for corporations, politics is a game akin to Monopoly that is rigged in their favor. The film also focuses on numerous ways that people are engaging in political struggles across the country to fight back, from the Occupy movement to street artists, from candidates running for office to public protests.

 
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(6 votes, average 3.33 out of 5)

Zimmerman Lawsuit a Costly Boondoggle

First council candidate in decades, if ever, to
sue the media in effort to suppress coverage

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted Tuesday January 20, 2015 9:55am

“To my memory, your honor—and I've been defending libel cases in Austin since 1990—this is the first time a candidate for City Council has ever sued the local media.”

Peter KennedyPeter KennedyAttorney Peter D. Kennedy made that claim in court January 5, 2015, representing The Austin Bulldog in seeking dismissal of the defamation lawsuit brought by District 6 City Council candidate Don Zimmerman.

The case was decided January 7 in The Austin Bulldog’s favor by Judge Amy Clark Meachum of the 201st District Court of Travis County, after hearings held December 18 and January 5. The decision came the day after Zimmerman was sworn into office.

Zimmerman’s lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice, meaning he is “forbidden from filing another lawsuit based on the same grounds.” Further he was ordered to pay $8,400 in reasonable attorney’s fees (less than a third of the $28,420 actually incurred in defending this lawsuit), court costs and other expenses of $579. In addition the court ordered Zimmerman to pay a sanction of $1,000 under Section 27.009 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code.

The significance of Zimmerman’s ill-fated attack goes far beyond what happens to The Austin Bulldog, a small independent nonprofit publishing investigative reporting in the public interest. It is crucial that the First Amendment right to report on judicial proceedings be protected. Judge Meachum’s order upholds that right.

Lawsuit legally futile

 
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(13 votes, average 3.92 out of 5)

Zimmerman Lawsuit Dismissed and Sanctioned

The Austin Bulldog’s anti-SLAPP motion approved
after second hearing, damages and cost assessed

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2014
Posted Wednesday January 7, 2015 3:02pm
Updated Wednesday January 7, 2015 4:22pm to define SLAPP

Don ZimmermanDon ZimmermanCouncil Member Don Zimmerman’s defamation lawsuit against The Austin Bulldog was dismissed today by Judge Amy Clark Meachum of the 201st District Court, based on approval of The Austin Bulldog’s anti-SLAPP motion (to dismiss a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation).

Zimmerman filed the lawsuit October 15, 2014, during his election campaign, in response to The Austin Bulldog’s article published October 9, 2014. The article was based on court records that say the court ordered he “shall have no possession of or access to” the minor child. The petition that led to the court order states, “Respondent (Zimmerman) has a history or pattern of physical and emotional abuse directed against M.Z. (his daughter Marina Zimmerman).” On June 16, 2014, Zimmerman signed and approved an Agreed Order stating the “Court finds that the material allegations in the petition are true.”

Peter KennedyPeter KennedyJudge Meachum awarded defendant Austin Investigative Reporting Project (dba The Austin Bulldog) $8,400 in attorney’s fees for the work of Peter D. Kennedy of Graves Dougherty Hearon & Moody PC, who represented the Bulldog, plus court costs and other expenses of $579, and a sanction of $1,000.

The ruling followed two hearings, held December 18 and January 5, concerning The Austin Bulldog’s motion to dismiss Zimmerman’s lawsuit under the Texas Citizens Participation Act, enacted in 2011 “to encourage and safeguard the constitutional rights of persons to petition, speak freely, associate freely, and otherwise participate in government to the maximum extent permitted by law and, at the same time, protect the rights of a person to file meritorius lawsuits for demonstrable injury.”

Section 27.009 of the Act states if the court orders dismissal the court “shall award” court costs, reasonable attorney’s fees, other expenses, and “sanctions against the party who brought the legal action as the court determines sufficient to deter the party ... from bringing similar actions described in this chapter.”

 
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(4 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

2014 in the Rearview Mirror

A review of ‘The Austin Bulldog’s unique
coverage and its impact on the community

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2014
Posted Monday January 5, 2015 10:36am

The structure of journalism has changed dramatically. The dominance of electronic media provides free and open access to massive amounts of information delivered immediately via the Internet. But it provides no qualifying filter and trusted sources of news and commentary are found side by side with the misguided and misleading.

Yet news itself hasn’t changed. Human nature hasn’t changed. We still have crooks, thieves, power abusers, and the inept. Cover-ups will exist as long as humans exist. To keep dishonesty at bay requires watchdogs—investigative reporters who are willing and able to dig beneath the surface, examine the details, and bring the truth to light. It is more important than ever to identify and support the news sources that have proved themselves worthy of your trust. The Austin Bulldog strives to be such a source.

Election coverage

The year 2014 ushered in an historic shift in political power. The system of electing council members from 10 geographic districts broke the Westside grip and allowed suburban sprawl to overtake City Hall. For the first time women will make up a majority of the City Council—a super majority of seven in fact. Hispanics finally gained representation close to their share of the population and the first Latina will take a seat on the dais. Republicans not only broke the Democratic stranglehold but will hold three of the 10 District council seats.

The Austin Bulldog’s reporting played an important role in helping voters to decide which candidates deserved donations, volunteer efforts, and votes.

Steve AdlerSteve AdlerThe next mayor—We provided in-depth coverage of Steve Adler, the man who will lead a council of nine newly minted members and only one holdover. Early articles covered Adler’s achievements as chief of staff to a state senator and as a leader of several important local nonprofits. These were followed by articles critical of his role as an attorney for property owners who were able to avoid compliance with current environmental regulations. The final installment detailed how he personally profited from not having to comply with the Save Our Springs Ordinance for development of a tract in Oak Hill. While Adler won a landslide victory in the mayoral runoff he did so no endorsements from the environmental community and will have to work harder to overcome distrust by protecting our environment.

 
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(4 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

 An Election For History Books

Geographic representation achieved, GOP wins
three seats, and several other records set

by Ken Martin
©The Austin Bulldog 2014
Posted Wednesday December 17, 2014 8:28pm
Updated Thursday December 18, 2014 6:21am

Steve Adler at victory party, with wife Diane Land looking onSteve Adler at victory party, with wife Diane Land looking onThe largest landslide margin ever in an Austin mayoral runoff was achieved last night, as mayoral victor Steve Adler swamped incumbent Council Member Mike Martinez.

In Travis and Williamson counties a combined total of 80,669 votes were cast in the mayor’s race. Adler garnered 54,366 for 67.39 percent, while Martinez netted 26,303 for 32.61 percent.

Laura Morrison set the previous record by getting 65.0 percent of the votes in her 2008 runoff against Cid Galindo. Robert Barnstone got 64.98 percent in beating Sam Guzman in a 1988 runoff.

Lee Cooke in 1988 set the prevous record for margin of victory in a mayoral runoff when he got 58.43 percent of the votes to unseat incumbent mayor Frank Cooksey.

Greg CasarGreg CasarAt age 25, Greg Casar became the youngest Austin City Council member ever elected.

Previously the youngest council member was 26-year-old Jeff Friedman, elected in 1971.

Friedman’s campaign consultant in that election, Peck Young, verified this, saying, “Jeff was the youngest when he was elected and Greg beats him by a year.” Casar will turn 26 in early May.

Casar ran a smart campaign to soundly defeat now two-time loser Laura Pressley (she got an impressive 44.48 percent of the votes in her one-on-one challenge of incumbent Martinez in 2012).

Laura PressleyLaura PressleyCasar’s District 4 victory of 2,851 votes (64.62 percent) to her 1,561 (35.38 percent) resulted in part from her campaign’s faux pas. Perhaps not the least of which was getting involved in a discussion of the 9-11 attacks being an inside job, which drew intense media coverage, and her latest mail piece attacking Casar for, among other things, allegedly being an atheist.

Still, last night Pressley couldn’t resist a parting shot. A little after 8pm as early voting results showed she was already behind by more than 700 votes, she insisted on being quoted as saying, “Greg sold District 4 to special interests.”

In response Casar told The Austin Bulldog, “My track record stands up for working people and progressive ideals, even when special interests stood in the way. I’m going to stay committed to that.”

Women rule

 
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(3 votes, average 4.00 out of 5)

Postcard Wars Down to the Wire

Which mayoral candidate best for environment
the theme of two latest campaign mail pieces

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2014
Posted Thursday December 11, 2014 5:41pm

In the waning days of the mayoral runoff campaigns to decide who will lead the first 10-1 Austin City Council with nine brand-new members, the main benefactor may be the printers and the U.S. Postal Service.

Steve AdlerSteve AdlerMike MartinezMike MartinezSupporters and detractors of Steve Adler and Mike Martinez are nevertheless doing what they can to sway potential voters before the December 16 election.

After five-plus weeks of relentless campaigning since the November 4 general election, it’s doubtful these last-minute attempts will make a huge difference in the outcome. But that’s not stopping people from making independent expenditures that are separate from the candidates’ own campaigns.

A four-color, six-by-11-inch postcard with a photo of Barton Springs landed in mailboxes yesterday, headlined, “Should the future of the springs be in Steve Adler’s hands?” (See link to two-page mailer at bottom of this story.)

The mailer points to three articles published by The Austin Bulldog, two of which detailed Adler’s work as an attorney representing developers that sought to evade compliance with then-current environmental regulations. The third article exposed how Adler profited from the sale of Oak Hill property that did not have to comply with the Save Our Springs Ordinance. (Links to all three stories are provided at the bottom of this article.)

“Move Austin forward with Mike Martinez” the flier urges.

Lorri MichelLorri MichelThe postcard includes a statement that it was paid for by Austin-based attorney Lorri Michel of the Michel Law Firm PC, who specializes in property taxes.

Progress for Austin strikes again

 
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