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(5 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

Criminal Complaint Hits Commissioner Daugherty

Save Our Springs Alliance files complaint a day
before vote to fund State Highway 45 project

 by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2014
Posted Monday, March 17, 2014 8:29pm

Gerald DaughertyGerald DaughertyThe Save Our Springs Alliance filed a criminal complaint with the Travis County Attorney’s Office today, alleging that Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty had violated the Texas Public Information Act by not turning over his correspondence related to the proposed controversial State Highway 45 Southwest. (See: SOS Alliance Criminal Complaint re: Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty)

The complaint came the day before the Travis County Commissioners Court could vote to approve an initial payment of $2.5 million to help pay for design and construction of SH45 SW and to be obligated to pay an additional $12.5 million by October 30.

The SOS Alliance has long opposed the construction of SH45 SW over the sensitive recharge zone of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer. Daugherty has spearheaded efforts to get SH45 SW built.

The timing of the vote is important, given the recent Democratic Primary election. Former Travis County Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt is the Democratic nominee for county judge, and former City Council Member Brigid Shea is the party’s nominee for the Precinct 2 county commissioner’s seat that Eckhardt vacated to run for county judge. Both are unlikely to support the new highway.

 
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(4 votes, average 4.00 out of 5)

Homestead Exemptions a Tax Loophole

Appraisal district processing relies mostly
on homeowners statements, not scrutiny

Investigative Report by Ken Martin
Part 2 of a series
Data Research by Brandon Roberts
© The Austin Bulldog 2014
Posted Thursday February 27, 2014 7:52pm

Two hundred eighty eight thousand dollars.

And counting.

That’s how much homeowners have been charged for back taxes so far as a result of The Austin Bulldog’s investigation of improperly granted residence homestead exemptions.

As important as it is to collect these back taxes, in the long run it may be more important to staunch the bleeding of tax dollars that would’ve gone on unabated had it not been for this investigation.

This investigation has spurred numerous actions by the Travis County Appraisal District to validate existing homestead exemptions, but numerous significant barriers exist that prevent more effective screening of new applications. (More about that later.)

Homestead residence exemptions lower the taxable value of a home. (The amount of exemptions granted by local taxing entities were published in Part 1 of this series on December 20.) When improperly granted, these exemptions cause the homeowner to be under-billed for property taxes.

Texas law entitles homeowners to have a residence homestead exemption on only one home per tax year. The exemption is authorized for the home that is the owner’s primary residence on January 1.

Although nearly $300,000 has so far been billed for back taxes owed by homeowners who have managed to obtain more than one exemption, correcting the mistakes exposed by this investigation is very much still a work in progress for the Travis Central Appraisal District and Travis County Tax Collector’s office.

As reported by The Austin Bulldog December 20, 2013, several hundred homeowners have obtained homestead tax exemptions on more than one residence—and thus avoided paying the full amount of property taxes that would otherwise be due.

Some 165 of these property owners had more than one home located in Travis County that enjoyed a tax exemption. Additional taxes billed to these homeowners as a result of this investigation totals $143,716 to date. (For details, click on: Homeowners Who May Have an Improper Residence Tax Exemption in Travis County.) As indicated by the questions inserted in “Remarks” (Column Z of this database), not all of these improper exemptions have been removed. Even in those cases where improper exemptions have been removed, it appears that not every homeowner was billed for the correct number of years for back taxes.

Another 120 homeowners dodged taxes by obtaining exemptions in both Travis County and another Texas county. (For details, click on: Homeowners Who Had an Improper Residence Homestead Exemption in Travis County or Another County.) The Travis Central Appraisal District eventually removed the inappropriate exemptions and initiated billing for back taxes totaling $144,367 for these properties.

Appraisal District corrective action

 
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(4 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

Celebration of Democracy Honors Achievements

But notes the challenges ahead with a City
Council composed of district representatives

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2014
Posted Thursday, February 6, 2014 5:48pm

An extended standing ovation, completes with whoops and hollers, erupted Wednesday night when the League of Women Voters Austin Area’s Francis McIntyre announced to a crowd of some 125 people at the Green Pastures restaurant, “I present to you the first Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission in the history of Austin.”

Each of the 14 members of the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (ICRC) was honored with an award as McIntyre called them one-by-one to step in front of the crowd. (See list of members below.)

The League’s State of the City 2014 dinner celebrated voter approval of Austin’s new form of city governance that will be launched following the first-ever election this coming November of council members from geographic districts that were drawn by the ICRC.

The Proposition 3 ballot measure to establish 10 council districts drew 146,496 votes in the November 6, 2012, election, besting by more than 24,000 votes the alternative plan put on the ballot by council members opposed to the 10-1 plan.

Steve BickerstaffSteve BickerstaffFeatured speaker Steve Bickerstaff—the founder of the Bickerstaff Heath law firm and the attorney who drafted the initial plan that wound up as Proposition 3 on the ballot through the grass-roots petitioning of Austinites for Geographic Representation—called the victory “an extraordinary example of the ability of people to take control of government and an exercise in democracy.”

Bickerstaff praised Linda Curtis, the sparkplug campaign coordinator for Austinites for Geographic Representation; City Auditor Ken Mory, who was instrumental in implementing the application process for volunteers who wanted to serve on the ICRC; the CPAs who (during tax season) winnowed the 450 applications to form a pool of those best qualified to serve on the ICRC; and the ICRC members themselves for accomplishing the difficult task of holding together and drawing the boundaries of the 10 districts from which future council members will be elected.

“A lot of people thought it (the process) would crash and burn but the reality is, you did it,” Bickerstaff said. “The ICRC is extraordinary because the commissioners were willing to spend their own time and skills to make the process work.” He also noted that the ICRC’s mission was completed for less than $150,000.

 
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(5 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

Homestead Exemptions Rife With Abuse

Honor system applications and inadequate scrutiny
for hundreds of homeowners not billed for full taxes

Investigative Report by Ken Martin
Part 1 of a series
Data Research by Brandon Roberts

© The Austin Bulldog 2013
Posted Friday, December 20, 2013 5:48am

Pablo Ornelas Jr. is being hit this month with a sudden increase in property taxes totaling more than $18,000 that he must pay by January 31 or face stiff penalties and steep interest charges.

Still, it’s hard to complain when he enjoyed an improper tax break for 15 years on one of the homes he owns.

For Ornelas, it’s actually good news that the law restricts the collection of back taxes to just five of those 15 years (2008-2012).

Renea DeckardRenea DeckardWhile that adds up to a lot of money, he will not have to repay the additional $21,000 in taxes he was under-billed for in tax years 1998 through 2007, according to calculations provided by Renea Deckard, associate deputy for collections in the Travis County Tax Office.

The bottom line is that a single oversight by the Appraisal District has so far cost taxing entities some $39,000 in revenue that was due on a single house. As stated above, Ornelas is being billed for only $18,000 (46 percent) of that amount.

If not for this investigation—which triggered the Appraisal District’s action to initiate collection of back taxes from Ornelas, and upped the taxes for 2013 as well—this hemorrhage would have continued for the foreseeable future.

Not an isolated case

 
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(5 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

Austin Impact of Supreme Court Decision

Ruling on Section 5 of Voting Rights Act ends
need for federal approval of council districts

by Steve Bickerstaff
© The Austin Bulldog
Posted Tuesday June 25, 2013 5:50pm

President Lyndon Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965President Lyndon Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965Today, the United States Supreme Court by a vote of 5-4 effectively struck down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. For Austin, that means that federal approval of the 10 council districts being drawn by the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission will not be needed.

Technically, the Court left Section 5 in place, but unusable. The Court directly struck down the formula in Section 4(b) of the Act that determined which states and local jurisdictions nationwide were covered by the requirement of Section 5 that changes in election procedures and practices by those covered jurisdictions had to be submitted for preclearance. Section 5 was effectively left dangling inapplicable to any jurisdiction.

 
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(2 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

Bulldog Open Records Lawsuit Continues

 Key issue is whether it is permissible to
redact officials’ private e-mail addresses

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2013
Posted Friday June 7, 2013 11:25am

How could you find out if Austin City Council members participated in an illegal quorum discussion about city business using their private e-mail accounts—a violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act?

The short answer is: you can’t.

Under the Texas Public Information Act (TPIA) you may request copies of e-mails exchanged by public officials about public business and you would be entitled to get them—including e-mails sent or received on private accounts (although in the past, the private-accounts issue has been a matter of legal contention).

But the e-mails you get from the public officials’ private e-mail accounts would not include their private e-mail addresses. Those addresses would be blacked out, redacted—to the point you would not be able to determine who sent or received a given e-mail, or whether a quorum of the governing board had illegally participated.

That was what The Austin Bulldog encountered in 2011, in response to a public information request for the e-mails about government business exchanged by the mayor and council members.

The Austin Bulldog eventually obtained copies of e-mails about government business exchanged by these elected officials using their private e-mail accounts—but only after filing a lawsuit to get them.

 
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(5 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

Austin Governed By the Well-to-Do

November 2014 elections may deliver
economic diversity in next city council

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2013
Posted Friday May 17, 2013 1:46pm

Lee LeffingwellLee LeffingwellMayor Lee Leffingwell has investments in stocks and mutual funds with an estimated value of anywhere from $159,000 to $643,000 (since shares are reported in ranges a more specific estimate is not possible).

He enjoys an annual income of $150,000 from all sources, roughly half of which comes from his mayoral salary of $77,688.

Sheryl ColeSheryl ColeMayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and husband Kevin Cole have a real estate portfolio valued on the tax rolls at $1.3 million and combined salaries of more than $100,000.

Mike MartinezMike MartinezCouncil Member Mike Martinez and wife Lara Wendler have combined salaries of $186,000.

They own a couple of houses that are on the tax rolls for a total of more than $1.1 million; have 38 stocks that have a bare minimum value of $170,000 (and likely far more); and their other investments are conservatively estimated at more than $250,000.

Laura MorrisonLaura MorrisonCouncil Member Laura Morrison with her husband Philip Morrison reported owning 27 stocks, six bonds and shares in 31 mutual funds.

They live in a West Austin home valued at $1.9 million. The Morrisons drew dividends of more than $35,000 and rental income of more than $35,000, and their combined salaries are $173,803.

Chris RileyChris RileyCouncil Member Chris Riley owns a downtown home with domestic partner Denise Brady.

The home, valued at $807,077, also serves as a four-plex and produces rental income of more than $20,000.

Bill SpelmanBill SpelmanCouncil Member Bill Spelman reported owning stock in 26 companies and shares in 29 mutual funds.

With wife Niyanta Spelman he owns a Hyde Park home and two other rental properties in Austin, as well as an interest in undeveloped West Texas rangeland.

Kathie TovoKathie TovoCouncil Member Kathie Tovo and husband Tom Hurt own or have interest in more than a dozen businesses; possess an extensive investment portfolio; and own approximately 26,000 acres of ranch land spread over four Texas counties that produced income of more than $500,000 last year from oil, gas, and land sales.

As it stands now, all seven of the city’s elected officials are comfortably well off. Just how wealthy they are is an open question. The sworn financial statements provide clues but the lack of required specificity prevents accurately quantifying the value of reported assets.

The good news is that these affluent and concerned citizens enjoy a level of financial security that allows them to use their intelligence and skills in service to the community. If they are rich it’s not because they capitalized on their elected positions.

Will geographic diversity spawn economic diversity?

 
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(1 vote, average 5.00 out of 5)

Hotze a Persistent Political Voice

Houston physician’s lawsuit challenges Obamacare,
continuing a lifelong pursuit of conservative causes

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2013
Posted Wednesday May 8, 2013 3:56pm 

Steven Hotze at an Austin anti-gay rally 1981Steven Hotze at an Austin anti-gay rally 1981Steven F. Hotze, M.D., has made conservative causes his life’s work and his latest endeavor is filing a federal lawsuit in an effort to overturn the Affordable Care Act.

The Austin American-Statesman reported yesterday that Hotze, “founder of the Conservative Republicans of Texas and a leading donor to GOP candidates, said Tuesday he had filed a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the Affordable Care Act.”

The Statesman reported that Hotze’s lawsuit “raises different issues than were considered when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld most aspects of the Affordable Care Act last summer.”

While it means nothing in a court of law and certainly will not affect the outcome of Hotze’s lawsuit, it seems worthwhile to let the public know a bit more about Hotze. And, as it happens, I wrote an in-depth feature story about him and his politics more than 30 years ago.

Austin Citizens for Decency

Hotze was front and center in my first big political story. The piece I wrote for Third Coast magazine was published in January 1982. “Decency Ordained: Austin’s Anti-Gay Crusade,” focused on an initiative that was on the ballot that month as a result of a successful citizens petition drive. (Click on the title to access the story and a lengthy sidebar, “Conscience of a Conservative,” that provides deep insight into his origins and motivation.)

 
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(4 votes, average 4.75 out of 5)

What Can Austin Learn From California?

Panel discussion focuses on how Golden State
experiences inform city’s move to 10-1 council

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2013
Posted Monday, May 6, 2013 2:00am
Updated with video link Tuesday May 7, 2013 10:50am

Emcee Bickerstaff and panelists Ancheta, Lewis, Hadavi, Limaye, FishkinEmcee Bickerstaff and panelists Ancheta, Lewis, Hadavi, Limaye, FishkinCalifornia’s official nickname, The Golden State, adopted in 1968, harkens back to the discovery of gold in 1848. Now the left-coast state’s experiences with using an independent citizens commission to draw maps for 177 seats in four different governing bodies offers a golden opportunity for learning how best to implement the City of Austin’s 10-1 plan.

The 10-1 plan for electing council members from geographic districts was approved by 60 percent of Austin voters last November 6 who voted for Proposition 3. Work is well underway to establish an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (ICRC) that will draw council districts to be implemented in the November 2014 election. The ICRC’s duties are specified in Article II, Section 3 of the Austin City Charter.

Close to a hundred people attended the panel discussion held the evening of Thursday, May 2, at the Bass Lecture Hall on the University of Texas campus. Upwards of half of those raised their hands when asked who had applied to serve on the ICRC.

The event was jointly hosted by UT’s School of Law, the LBJ School’s Center for Politics and Governance, and Austinites for Geographic Representation.

 
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(3 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

Redistricting Veteran Shares His Wisdom

 Member of California Redistricting Commission
describes what to watch out for in Austin redistricting

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2013
Posted Thursday May 2, 2013 3:55pm

One of the 14 members of the California Redistricting Commission was the featured speaker at today’s luncheon hosted by Austinites for Geographic Representation and sponsored by the Austin Area Research Organization and League of Woman Voters Austin Area.

Angelo AnchetaAngelo AnchetaAttorney Angelo Ancheta is director of the Katherine and George Alexander Community Law Center and an associate clinical professor at Santa Clara University, where he teaches on subjects including election law, voting rights, and immigration. He came to Austin at his own expense and with no other business here to help educate the community about what to expect going forward.

From an applicants’ pool of 30,000 people, Ancheta won a slot on the California Redistricting Commission, the group that drew the maps for four different political jurisdictions, which included 80 seats in the California State Assembly, 40 seats in the California State Senate, 53 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, and four seats on the California State Board of Equalization.

Ancheta’s experience in drawing maps for California, a state with 38 million people, offers good insights into what lies ahead for the City of Austin and its 845,000 people.

 
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(5 votes, average 4.20 out of 5)

Why Bother? Austin After 10-1

KLRU-TV taping draws more than 200 people
for multifaceted discussion of what future holds

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2013
Posted Monday, April 29, 2013 4:01pm

Moderator Foster and panelists Robinson, Greenberg and LeeModerator Foster and panelists Robinson, Greenberg and LeeIt’s been six months since 60 percent of voters approved a change to the Austin City Charter that will result in creation of 10 geographic districts from which residents will be elected to the Austin City Council in November 2014.

At present we’re in a quiet period during the slow work of creating an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission to actually draw the maps for council districts, but some are thinking ahead to how this city may be governed after that historic election ends the at-large system of electing council members that started 60 years ago this month, on April 4, 1953.

To keep the public focused on this fundamentally important change, a live taping of the fourth in a series of “Why Bother?” programs packed Studio 6-A at the KLRU-TV station the evening of April 23.These programs are designed to create an ongoing dialogue about civic engagement.

 
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(3 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

Litigation Challenges Open Government Laws

Attorneys criticize criminal penalties and public
access to elected officials’ private e-mail accounts

Part 3 of a 3-Part Series

by Ken Martin
© 2013 The Austin Bulldog
Posted Wednesday, April 24, 2013 2:00am

The audience was indeed sparse but two lawyers were nonetheless passionate in addressing what they perceived to be improper actions by the Texas Attorney General in how his office enforces the Texas Public Information Act and how prosecutors enforce the Texas Open Meetings Act. Both attorneys have fought what so far have been losing battles in court over these issues.

A third attorney on the panel titled “Open Government: Litigation Developments” (click the link to watch the video) provided an analysis of the inconsistencies in decisions rendered by Texas courts with respect to how the Texas Public Information Act applies to the ability of requestors to obtain records involving public-private partnerships.

Jacqueline CullomJacqueline CullomAfter being introduced by Assistant City Attorney Jacqueline Cullom at the City of Austin’s Open Government Symposium held April 17 at City Hall, these attorneys individually provided their interpretations of how the Act plays out in actual practice.

Criminal penalties unnecessary, McKamie argues

Mick McKamieMick McKamieAttorney Mick McKamie of the San Antonio-based firm McKamie Krueger LLP (with offices in Austin, Dallas, and Laredo) led off the discussion. He was co-lead counsel in the plaintiff’s appeal in Asgeirsson el at v. Abbott (No. 11-50441) that was recently denied a hearing by the U.S. Supreme Court.

That case involved 15 elected officials who contend the Texas Open Meetings Act’s criminal penalties established in Government Code Section 551.144 (for knowingly participating in a closed meeting that is not permitted) violate the officials’ First Amendment rights. The possible punishment includes a fine of $100 to $500, confinement in the county jail for not less than one month or more than six months, or both the fine and confinement.

 
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(3 votes, average 4.67 out of 5)

Social Media’s Impact on Open Government

Few government organizations have dealt with
how Facebook, Twitter use affects compliance

Part 2 of a 3-Part Series

by Ken Martin
© 2013 The Austin Bulldog
Posted Tuesday, April 23, 2013 2:00am

“A popular Government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
— James Madison (1751-1836), Bill of Rights author and fourth president of the United States

By far the most lively panel discussion covered by The Austin Bulldog during the City of Austin’s Open Government Symposium held March 17 dealt with how social media and trends are affecting governmental organizations and how those organizations comply with open government laws. A standing room crowd witnessed the discussion in the Board and Commission meeting room at City Hall.

Jason KingJason KingA panel moderated by Jason King, senior attorney and deputy ethics advisor in The University of Texas System’s Office of General Counsel, included the government official in charge of the Texas Attorney General’s Open Records Division and an attorney whose firm represents and advises numerous small Texas cities on matters of open government.

Alan BojorquezAlan BojorquezAttorney Alan Bojorquez of the Austin-based Bojorquez Law Firm PLLC serves as attorney for 22 general law and home-rule municipalities across the state. He is the author of the Texas Municipal Law and Procedure Manual (5th Edition).

Bojorquez said, “Social media technology is always changing and the law can’t keep up with technology.”

“Public officials are trying to conduct business but don’t know how to do it. The answer should be simple, but it’s not. It’s gray, and has been for many years.”

 
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(4 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

City Hosts Open Government Symposium

Lawyers attending for education credits abound,
much of day has little to do with city practices

Part 1 of a 3-Part Series

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2013
Posted Monday April 22, 2013 8:40am

“Under the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government that adheres to the principle that government is the servant and not the master of the people, it is the policy of this state that each person is entitled, unless otherwise expressly provided by law, at all times to complete information about the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”
Texas Public Information Act, Government Code Section 552.001(a).

Last week, the City of Austin demonstrated its renewed commitment to let citizens in on the process of governing. The City hosted a groundbreaking effort to focus public attention on the issues related to open government.

Hosting the symposium was a big step into the sunshine for a government agency that has gone through some traumatic experiences over the last couple of years.

Those experiences included a criminal investigation for violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act, which resulted in deferred prosecution agreements signed by the mayor and council members (except Kathie Tovo, who was elected after violations occurred), and a lawsuit filed by The Austin Bulldog that triggered major reforms in the city’s handling of electronic communications during the county attorney’s investigation. (More about that later.)

Lee LeffingwellLee LeffingwellMayor Lee Leffingwell read opening remarks Wednesday morning to a nearly empty City Council chamber. (Click link for video.)

“We believe that transparency fosters the public trust and it's very important to us,” Leffingwell said. The symposium offers “an opportunity to talk about the law and the process of open government and to learn from each other....”

 
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(9 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

City Spent $157,636 to Defend Council Violations

Payments for private lawyers for mayor,
council members in criminal investigation

Investigative Report by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2013
Posted Monday April 8, 2013 3:33pm

On the eve of the City of Austin’s Open Government Symposium slated for April 17, The Austin Bulldog’s investigation found that the City of Austin quietly paid $157,636 for attorneys to defend six elected city officials (not including Council Member Kathie Tovo) and former Council Member Randi Shade during County Attorney David Escamilla’s 21-month criminal investigation of the City Council’s violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act.

These expenses—plus $444,000 the Austin American-Statesman reported June 17, 2012, that the city had authorized to spend with three law firms for advice on matters related to complying with the Texas Open Meetings Act—means taxpayers have shelled out more than $600,000 since The Austin Bulldog broke the story of these violations January 25, 2011.

 
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(5 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

Dafoe Offers to Settle for $40,000

 Settlement invitation for Mayor Leffingwell would avoid
lawsuit, depositions, and trial for Election Code violations

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2013
Posted Thursday March 21, 2013 1:26pm

Clay DafoeClay DafoeClay Dafoe—who along with former Council Member Brigid Shea ran unsuccessfully against Mayor Lee Leffingwell in his 2012 reelection bid—has invited the mayor to settle without litigation Dafoe’s claim for damages by paying him $40,000.

This in lieu of the potential for more than $65,000 in statutory damages that could be awarded if Dafoe were to prevail in a lawsuit over Leffingwell’s failure to timely file accurate campaign finance reports as required by the state Election Code.

Lee LeffingwellLee LeffingwellMayor Leffingwell did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment about the settlement offer or to a voice message left with his chief of staff, Andy Mormon.

Election Code Section 254.231 makes a candidate who fails to report campaign contributions or campaign expenditures that are required to be reported liable for damages to opposing candidates in twice the amount that was unreported and reasonable attorney’s fees incurred in the suit. (If judgment should be rendered in the defendant’s favor the defendant is entitled to reasonable attorney’s fees.)

The Austin Bulldog’s investigative report, published March 5, showed that Leffingwell’s 2012 mayoral campaign did not account for $32,716.54 in funds. In addition, his 2009 campaign left more than $40,000 unaccounted for. (See Lee Leffingwell 2009 and 2012 Campaign Finance Reports Analysis .)

 
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(3 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

City Hosting Open Government Symposium

 Follows county attorney’s investigation
of City Council open meetings violations

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog
Posted Tuesday March 19, 2012 2:59pm
Updated Tuesday, March 19, 2013 at 3:27pm

The City of Austin is taking a giant step into the sunshine by hosting its first-ever Open Government Symposium April 17, an all-day event featuring six panel discussions.

The symposium comes six months after the county attorney concluded a 21-month investigation of the mayor and council members, in which he “found probable cause to believe that multiple violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act had occurred,” according to the Travis County Attorney David Esamilla’s Press Release of October 24, 2012.

That investigation—triggered by The Austin Bulldog’s investigative report of January 25, 2011 and a formal complaint filed by civic activist Brian Rodgers—resulted in these elected officials (excluding Kathie Tovo, who was not on the council at the time of the violations) signing deferred prosecution agreements, also called compliance agreements.

David EscamillaDavid EscamillaIn a Monday interview, Escamilla said of the symposium, “I’m happy to see the city move forward in this direction. I think it's a needed initiative given that during our investigation we identified a lack of understanding and education in this area.”

The open government symposium comes two years after The Austin Bulldog sued the City of Austin over its refusal to release e-mails about city business that the mayor and council members exchanged on private accounts.

That lawsuit, The Austin Bulldog v. Lee Leffingwell, mayor, et al filed March 1, 2011—five weeks after the county attorney launched his investigation—not only triggered release of those e-mails about city business exchanged on private accounts but led to new policies for how the City Council, city employees, and board and commission members handle electronic communication in accordance with the Texas Public Information Act.

City’s efforts aim to boost openness

 
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(5 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

Dafoe Hires Law Firm Over Mayor’s Misreporting

Clay Dafoe, third-place finisher in
2012 mayoral election, first to act

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2013
Posted Thursday, March 14, 2013 9:12pm
Corrected Thursday, March 14, 2013 at 9:45pm

Clay DafoeClay DafoeClay Dafoe has followed through on his previously stated intent to take legal action against Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell.

Bill AleshireBill AleshireThis afternoon, Austin attorney Bill Aleshire of Riggs Aleshire and Ray PC told The Austin Bulldog, “Our law firm has been retained by Clay Dafoe to hold Lee Leffingwell accountable for violating the state campaign finance laws in the mayoral campaign of 2012.”

In a phone interview this evening Aleshire added, “We will let the facts take us where they go and we will not take any action that’s not in good faith.”

“That’s all we have to say at this point,” Aleshire said, “but there will be more later.”

(Disclosure: Aleshire is The Austin Bulldog’s attorney in a Texas Public Information Act lawsuit that is still pending.)

Lee LeffingwellLee LeffingwellAttempts to reach Mayor Leffingwell this evening for a comment were unsuccessful. A listed home number has been disconnected. A phone call to his chief of staff, Andy Mormon, was not answered. A text message sent to Mormon’s cell phone requesting a comment from the mayor was not promptly answered.

Two phone messages left for Dafoe were not returned. Aleshire later informed The Austin Bulldog that, “Mr. Dafoe will not be commenting directly.”

Grounds for lawsuit

 
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(4 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

Mayor Responds to Red Flags Report

Leffingwell’s amended reports address
his unaccounted for campaign funding

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog
Posted Tuesday, March 12, 2013 1:06pm

The Austin Bulldog’s investigative report exposed the fact that more than $72,000 in campaign funds were not properly accounted for in Leffingwell’s two mayoral campaigns and the true source of a $30,000 loan the mayor reported making to his 2012 campaign may have been concealed.

Lee LeffingwellLee LeffingwellIn response to that investigative report Mayor Lee Leffingwell filed two Correction/Amendment Affidavits March 6.

More than $40,000 in campaign funds were unaccounted for by offsetting reported expenditures at the end of Leffingwell’s 2009 mayoral campaign. The Lee Leffingwell 2010 Correction/Amendment Affidavit addresses that defect by reporting that he reimbursed part of the $100,000 he had loaned his 2009 campaign with $39,039.07 in unspent funds. Schedule F included with the Affidavit shows that payment was made July 29, 2009.

More than $32,000 was unaccounted for after the mayor’s 2012 reelection campaign. The Lee Leffingwell 2012 Correction/Amendment Affidavit addresses that defect by reporting $32,675.83 in expenditures that were not properly included in the mayor’s final 2012 Campaign Finance Report due to a bookkeeping error. Five expenditures that total that amount are included in the revised Schedule F (see details at the end of this article.).

The Lee Leffingwell 2012 Correction/Amendment Affidavit also included a change in the lender’s address in Schedule E for the $30,000 loan to his campaign. The revised Schedule E reflects the mayor’s own home address, in lieu of the address of Thomas Coopwood, M.D., who Leffingwell personally nominated for reappointment to the Central Health Board of Managers.

The filing of these Affidavits do not alter the fact that Leffingwell’s mayoral opponents who ran against him in 2009 and 2012 can still sue him for damages. (More about that later.)

Mayor’s consultant responds

 
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(4 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

Mayor’s Campaign Reports Raise Red Flags

Problems could subject mayor to double damages
in civil lawsuits and triple damages payable to the state

Odd address entry on one report also
raises possibility of a criminal violation

Investigative report by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog
Posted Tuesday, March 5, 2013 12:27pm

Lee LeffingwellLee LeffingwellA total of more than $72,000 in campaign funds were not properly accounted for in Lee Leffingwell’s two mayoral campaigns and the true source of a $30,000 loan the mayor reported making to his 2012 campaign may have been concealed.

These defects were discovered in The Austin Bulldog’s analysis of more than a thousand pages of Campaign Finance Reports filed by Leffingwell during his first run for mayor in 2009 and in his 2012 reelection bid, along with related public records.

The Austin Bulldog’s written request for an interview with the mayor outlined the general nature of our findings and the possible legal implications. The mayor, through his chief of staff, Andy Mormon, declined to be interviewed.

The defects in Leffingwell’s reports may make him legally responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars in civil damages and attorney’s fees if his 2009 and 2012 mayoral campaign opponents choose to file lawsuits authorized by state law.

These defects could also result in a substantial damages payable to the Texas Ethics Commission.

Further, if the source of the $30,000 loan to his 2012 reelection campaign is not Leffingwell—as he attested in a sworn statement—then he and the actual lender could be vulnerable to criminal charges as well.

 
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