Here’s What the Public Records Say About the Council Member Running for Reelection
by Rebecca LaFlure
In the nearly six years since Sheryl Cole was elected as the first African-American woman on the Austin City Council, she has championed a project aimed at spurring redevelopment along Waller Creek, advocated for increased housing options for low-income families, and voted in favor of the controversial $750,000 settlement in the police shooting death of teenager Nathaniel Sanders II.
Now, a month after Cole launched her campaign for a third term, The Austin Bulldog searched beyond the decisions made at council meetings and dug into Cole’s professional, political, and personal background.
We used an organized plan to find, copy, and publish public documents—including business, real estate, voting, criminal and court records—so citizens can form their own conclusions about their elected officials in the months leading to the May 2012 election.
We invite readers to study the documents and let us know if there are any important details we overlooked, or areas that warrant further investigation.
Research into her property records and campaign finance reports show Cole has strong connections to the real estate sector. She owns more real estate than any of her fellow council members and received financial backing from Austin-area business owners, developers and real estate leaders in her 2009 re-election campaign.
In addition to Cole’s $791,099 Austin home, she and her husband, attorney Kevin Cole, own four rental properties in Austin with a combined value of $480,228, according to the Travis County appraisal district. The Coles also own a $53,739 rental property in Wichita Falls, Texas, and two vacant pieces of land in Austin worth a total of $20,000.
The Coles once partnered with Demetrius McDaniel, an Austin attorney and registered state lobbyist, to buy more than 100 vacant lots in the Crystal Brook, Las Cimas, and Northridge Park subdivisions. The Coles sold nearly all of their shares of the properties by the end of 2007, according to Cole’s Personal Financial Statements and real estate documents.
Property tax records indicate the Coles still own two undeveloped lots in Las Cimas. Cole reported these two lots on her latest Personal Financial Statement submitted to the City of Austin in accordance with Local Government Code Chapter 145 but failed to report them in a separate Personal Financial Statement filed in accordance with Austin City Code Section 2-7-72.
The Coles record of buying and selling real estate in Travis County stretches from 1990 through 2009 and encompasses 366 pages of records.
The Austin American-Statesman wrote in a November 30 article that, “Cole’s generally pro-growth stance earned plaudits from developers and downtown business leaders but drew accusations that she was too close to the city’s real estate lobby.”
Token opposition in two campaigns
Campaign finance reports for Cole’s first election campaign in 2006 are no longer available. She faced two opponents that year and got 59.77 percent of the votes, winning without a runoff.
Cole raised $181,269 for her reelection campaign in 2009 against a single opponent, winning 83.16 percent of the votes. She spent $162,422 in that race, including the $45,000 she used to repay a loan, according to her campaign finance reports for that election cycle.
During that 2009 reelection campaign, she received significant financial support from well-connected people tied to real estate and development projects, some of whom bundled contributions for her. Bundlers are individuals who solicit and obtain contributions of $200 or more from five or more individuals. The reporting of bundlers’ names in contribution reports is required by City Code Section 2-2-22, although this requirement does not apply to an individual who raises $5,000 or less for a candidate through a fundraising event held at the individual’s home.
According to 2009 campaign finance reports, Cole’s bundlers included, in alphabetic order:
Karen Friese, president of K Friese & Associates Inc. consulting engineers.
Jeffrey Howard of McLean and Howard LLP, a registered city lobbyist and real estate and development lawyer who currently represents 14 clients including AVG Partners, Simmons Vedder & Co., and The Stratford Company LP.
Solomon Kassa, owner of Lone Star Cab Company (To see the legal history of ABCABCO Inc. dba Lone Star Cab, click here. This information added Friday January 13, 2012, at 2:50pm in response to reader feedback questioning the ownership of Lone Star Cab Company.)
Nikelle Meade, a real estate attorney at Brown McCarroll LLP and a registered city lobbyist who currently represents 89 clients, including Avis Rent-A-Car; Gemini Solar Development Company, which in 2009 won a $250 million city contract to build a 30 megawatt solar power project for Austin Energy; and Saint Edwards University.
William Reagan, president of Reagan National Advertising
Brian Reis, vice president Espey Consultants Inc., the environmental and engineering consulting firm that helped design and manage construction of the Waller Creek Development Project that Cole championed.
Kirk Rudy, CEO of Endeavor Real Estate Group, which has negotiated private-public partnerships with Austin officials, most notably The Domain mixed-use development
Trey Salinas of 3 Point Partners, a former aide to Austin Mayor Bruce Todd, now a registered city lobbyist who currently represents 16 clients, including AMD, Endeavor Real Estate Group, Simon Property Group, and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Salinas is also a publicist for Formula 1 Racing and the Austin Chamber of Commerce.
Bradley Schlosser, principal at Schlosser Development Corp., who helped bring stores like Whole Foods and Anthropology to Sixth and Lamar
Michael Whellan, an attorney with Graves Dougherty Hearon and Moody and a registered city lobbyist who currently represents 13 clients, including Ardent Residential LP, Finley Company, Met Center developers, and St. David’s Healthcare Center.
In her initial campaign for council in 2006, Cole touted her background as an accountant and attorney. In 1986 she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in accounting at the University of Texas at Austin. She worked for Big Five accounting firm Ernst & Young for two years until returning to the University of Texas to earn a law degree in 1991, according to the university’s degree and attendance database.
After graduating from law school, Cole joined law firm Wright & Greenhill PC (then Bankston Wright & Greenhill). In 1995 Cole became staff counsel at the Texas Municipal League, and a registered state lobbyist for the organization, where she served until 2001.
Public records confirm Cole registered as a licensed accountant in Texas in March 1991, but she voluntarily surrendered her license in August 2008.
While still in good standing with the State Bar of Texas, she is currently ineligible to practice law. According to the state bar website, Cole claimed a “Minimum Continuing Legal Education (MCLE) non-practicing exemption.”
Kim Davey, director of public information for the State Bar of Texas, said licensed attorneys not currently practicing law claim this exemption so they aren’t required to maintain 15 hours of continuing legal education every year.
Cole said, “I am not currently practicing as an attorney or an accountant and do not foresee doing so in the future, which is why I have chosen not to keep my licenses current.”
Cole is listed on the Secretary of State’s business database as a “director” and “consultant” of Restorative Christian Outreach Ministries, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit whose mission is to help ex-offenders re-enter society, largely through spiritual guidance.
However, Cole denies any involvement with this group.
Mack Bailey, an Austin resident and evangelist listed in documents as the nonprofit’s organizer, said he formed the nonprofit in 2006 and operated it out of the University Hills Church of Christ until moving out in 2009. Bailey now works out of his home, but the nonprofit has been largely inactive over the past couple of years, he said.
The nonprofit is in good standing with the state comptroller’s office, and Cole is still listed as a director and consultant in the reports filed with the Texas Secretary of State and the Comptroller of Public Accounts, including the Texas Franchise Tax Public Information Report for 2011, filed July 25 and signed by Bailey. However, the IRS revoked the organization’s tax-exempt status May 15, 2010, for failure to file required forms for three consecutive years.
Cole was also listed as a member of the board of directors in the nonprofit’s IRS documents.
Bailey said December 28 that he approached Cole about his idea for the nonprofit in 2003, prior to her being elected to the council. She agreed to lend her help once the business got started, but the nonprofit didn’t get far enough to warrant her help, Bailey said.
“I had to have a few people on my program so I could have a good background. She agreed that I could use the name,” Bailey said.
“So far I haven’t called on her. I haven’t generated enough activity to use her knowledge. … I have several other people on there that I haven’t had to call, but they know that I have their names.”
When presented with this information, Cole said by e-mail that she had “no knowledge of this group,” and noted that her address was written incorrectly on the Secretary of State documents. The address was listed as “4104 Wildwood Road,” and her address is “4101 Wildwood Road.”
Other than a July 30, 2009 speeding ticket in Austin, Cole has no searchable criminal history in Texas. Records searches indicate she has never filed for bankruptcy and does not owe overdue property taxes in Travis County.
Cole has only been sued in Travis County and district courts in her capacity as a city official.
Searches of Travis County court records show Cole sued Ruben Benitez and Madrid Gonzalo for car damages and injuries she sustained in a 1991 car accident. Benitez, the driver, and Gonzalo, the car’s owner, were ordered to pay Cole $13,233, plus post judgment interest.
The Texas Ethics Commission ordered Cole to pay a $500 penalty for violating Texas’ election code. A complaint was filed with the commission alleging that Cole accepted contributions from corporations and labor organizations, did not properly report political contributions and expenditures, and failed to file a July 2008 semiannual campaign finance report.
A July 4 article in the Austin American-Statesman said six Houston-area Tea Party members filed the complaints against Cole and her fellow council members after they decided to end city business with and limit travel to Arizona in protest of the state’s controversial immigration law.
The commission issued a resolution April 21 stating it did not find sufficient evidence that Cole accepted donations from corporations or labor organizations, but there is evidence of other violations. Nine contributions totaling $2,200, did not include the full name of the donor, and a $100 expenditure did not include the full name of the person who received the money. The commission also found that Cole failed to file a July 2008 campaign finance report.
Cole said she filed a supplemental disclosure providing the nine full names and the $100 expenditure in August 2010, and she paid the $500 fine.
Cole noted in her financial reports that her husband, Kevin Cole, operates Cole & Powell PC, known as The Cole Law Firm, out of their Austin home.
When The Austin Bulldog started its research, the Texas Comptroller’s website listed the law firm as “not in good standing” because it did not satisfy all franchise tax requirements. Franchise tax requirements include filing various documents, such as a Public Information Report, and paying the taxes due.
R.J. DeSilva, spokesman for the state comptroller’s office, said December 15 that Cole & Powell had not filed the required franchise tax report in 2009. Whether the business also owed taxes is not public information, DeSilva said.
The Austin Bulldog notified Kevin and Sheryl Cole of the law firm’s status December 8. As of January 8, the company is now listed as in good standing.
Cole is a loyal Democrat and has voted in Democratic primaries dating back to 1992, according to her Travis County voting records.
She was involved in several Austin community activities prior to being elected to the Austin City Council, including serving as president of the Lee Elementary School PTA, tri-chair of the 2004 Austin Independent School District’s Citizen Bond Committee, and member of the 1998 City of Austin Citizen Bond Committee.
Cole became the first African American woman elected to serve in the Austin City Council in 2006 when she was elected to Place 6, historically the African American seat.
She unseated Council Member Mike Martinez as mayor pro tem last June after publicly backing challenger Kathie Tovo, who beat incumbent Randi Shade in a runoff. That election marked Cole’s very public split with Mayor Lee Leffingwell, then-Mayor Pro Tem Martinez, and Shade, and swung the 4-3 majority to favor Cole and Council Members Laura Morrison, Bill Spelman and Tovo.
Following Tovo’s election, Cole made the rounds trying to line up support for a mayoral candidacy that if successful would have made her Austin’s first black mayor. However, Cole announced in November that she would seek a third term for her current council seat.
In her November 30 re-election kickoff speech, Cole said she is seeking another term to help Austin keep up with its growth and ensure economic stability.
She also spoke out against the city’s gentlemen‘s agreement which traditionally sets aside City Council seats for an African American and Latino.
“A first class city does not relegate any group to a particular place,” Cole said in her speech. “I am running for re-election to City Council, but know that I’m not always going to keep ‘my place.’”
Cole serves as a board member of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, Downtown Austin Alliance, and Lone Star Rail District.
Cole has served as the chief advocate for a tunnel project that would control flooding around Waller Creek, on the eastern edge of downtown, and spur redevelopment in that area by taking land out of the floodplain. She said in her re-election speech that the project will create 1,400 jobs, and lead to “further improving Austin’s position as a destination city.” To keep that project on track, effective October 1 Cole’s former policy director, Stephanie McDonald, was temporarily assigned a management role with the Waller Creek Conservancy with an annual salary of $69,992, although she remains a city employee. (The Conservancy has agreed to reimburse the city for McDonald’s services at the rate of $72,294 a year, payable in quarterly increments.)
The council passed a resolution proposed by Cole in March 2010 that would create 350 permanent supportive housing units for low-income residents over the next four years, according to Community Impact Newspaper.
Two months later, Cole and Council Member Spelman launched the Neighborhood Partner Program in which the city partners with neighborhood associations on various improvement projects, the Austin American-Statesman reported. That same month, Cole proposed a resolution that passed the council stating housing for homeless and very poor people will get first priority for funding.
She also sponsored the measure to settle for $750,000 in the controversial federal wrongful death suit of Nathaniel Sanders II, who was shot by an officer in 2009. The council voted 5-2 to settle August 25. That vote reversed the council’s 4-3 vote not to settle in 2010. The Statesman reported that Cole said she voted in favor of the suit to “promote community healing.”
In her re-election campaign kickoff speech Cole noted “the importance of a transparent, collaborative government. A government you can trust.”
She did not mention that Travis County Attorney David Escamilla announced in January 2010 that his office is investigating a complaint that Cole, the mayor and her fellow city council members engaged in private, one-on-one and two-on-one meetings to deliberate city business—a possible violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act.
A violation if proven would constitute a criminal offense under Section 551.143 of the Act, a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not less than $100 and not more than $500, confinement in the county jail for not less than one month or more than six months, or both the fine and confinement.
The Austin Bulldog broke the story on January 25 about the private meetings being held in which every council member met with every other council member to discuss city business right before each council meeting. Each council member was involved in hundreds of these meetings in 2010 alone, a fact documented in the calendars of four council members that were published with the story.
Cole admitted to participating in these meetings in a January 21 interview with The Austin Bulldog and said it’s a practice she had engaged in since elected to the council in 2006. However, she insisted that the private meetings did not violate the Open Meetings Act.
A month later, thousands of e-mails exchanged between Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Cole and other council members were released in response to open records requests filed by The Austin Bulldog and Austin American-Statesman. Many of these e-mails were sent while on the dais during council meetings and contained unflattering remarks about city staff members and citizens.
On March 1 The Austin Bulldog sued Leffingwell, each council member, and the City of Austin for not releasing all e-mail exchanges requested under the Texas Public Information Act.
The lawsuit stemmed from The Austin Bulldog’s open records requests of January 19 and 27, 2010, for e-mails, letters, memoranda, notes, or other forms of written communication from the mayor and each council member to any council member or the mayor from January 1, 2010, through the date of the requests.
The city said it would not turn over e-mails about city business these elected officials sent or received on personal e-mail accounts. As a result of the lawsuit, however, the mayor and council members eventually released varying amounts of these e-mails.
Some of the 2,400 pages of 2009 e-mails, obtained later by The Austin Bulldog, showed that council members communicated among themselves about city business in numbers equaling or exceeding a quorum, a possible open meetings violation. The 2009 e-mails exchanged among council members also exposed private deliberations about highly sensitive matters of city business, including the $500 million Water Treatment Plant 4, a $250 million purchased power agreement for a solar project, and the proposed $750,000 settlement over the police shooting death of teenager Nathaniel Sanders II.
The county attorney’s investigation and The Austin Bulldog’s lawsuit are both ongoing and may reemerge as campaign issues for the May election.
Sheryl Nelson Cole
Birth date: August 16, 1964
Current Office: Mayor pro tem since June 2011; Place 6 council member since June 2006
Office sought: Place 6 council member
Office salary: $64,043 plus a $5,400 annual car allowance
Office E-mail: [email protected]
Office telephone: 512-974-2266
Board of directors, past: President of the Lee Elementary School PTA; Leadership Austin, Austin Area Urban League and Communities in Schools; Tri-Chair of the 2004 Austin ISD Citizen Bond Committee; 1998 City of Austin Citizen Bond Committee; Planned Parenthood
Cole DBA (assumed name certificate)
Campaign finance reports
Shuronda Robinson, campaign manager
Reverend Joseph Parker, pastor of David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, campaign treasurer
City staff: Greg Anderson, policy director; Michael McGill, policy liaison; Phylis Gage, constituent liaison
Civil lawsuit: Cole v. Benitez et al
Council committees: Chair of Audit and Finance committee, chair of Comprehensive Plan and Transportation Committee; member of the Minority-Owned Business Enterprise and Women-Owned Business Enterprise Subcommittee, Judicial Committee, Public Health and Human Services Subcommittee, City of Austin/Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees Joint Subcommittee
Education: Bachelor’s degree in accounting and law degree, University of Texas at Austin
2009 city e-mail account (231 pages)
2010 and January 2011 city e-mail account (366 pages)
Marriage record: Court records show that Sheryl Renee Nelson married Kevin Wayne Cole in 1990. Kevin Cole, an Austin attorney who operates a law firm from their home. He is also involved in the Austin community as chair of the United Way Capital Area board and president of the Austin Public Education Foundation.
Personal Financial Statements:
Sheryl Cole 2011 mid-year update (City Code)
Sheryl Cole 2006-2010 (State Law, Chapter 145)
Travis County Grantor Records (property sold)
State of Texas records (9 pages)
Texas Ethics Commission Order and Agreed Resolution
Voter registration application and voter history
Waller Creek Conservancy Agreement: Assigns Cole’s former policy director, Stephanie McDonald, to work for the Conservancy at a salary of $69,992 a year, to be reimbursed to the City of Austin by the Conservancy.
City of Austin biography: http://www.austintexas.gov/biography/mayor-pro-tem
Links to stories (most recent first). Note: Most, but not all, Austin American-Statesman articles are linked here through the Austin Public Library online databases. Access is free but requires a library card number to view. You must log in on the library site for these links to work. Or, alternatively, Statesman articles can be accessed by searching the newspaper’s online archives and creating a user account.
Five and a half things about Sheryl Cole’s re-election kickoff November 30, 2011, The Austin Chronicle
Cole will seek third term, forgoing mayoral run November 30, 2011, Austin American-Statesman
Police shooting suit settled, August 26, 2011 Statesman archives
Austin council’s pay raises fly under the radar July 22, 2011, The Austin Bulldog
E-mails exchanged by council members expose private deliberations and political maneuvering July 6, 2011, The Austin Bulldog
Activists’ hunt for payback nets small fines July 4, 2011 Statesman archives
Treasure trove of public documents made available in searchable format May 12, 2011, The Austin Bulldog
The Austin Bulldog files civil complaint against City of Austin and council members March 23, 2011 The Austin Bulldog
The Austin Bulldog files lawsuit to compel compliance with the law March 2, 2011, The Austin Bulldog
Council releases revealing e-mails: Communications show hard feelings, harsh words; raise questions on open meetings February 26, 2011, Austin American-Statesman
Waller project costs rising February 18, 2011 Statesman archives
Council Member Sheryl Cole Goes On the Record About Private Meetings February 3, 2011, The Austin Bulldog
Braced for the gathering storm, January 28, 2011 Statesman archives
Open meetings, closed minds: Private meetings to discuss public business shows Austin City Council may be violating Open Meetings Act, January 25, 2011, The Austin Bulldog
Take ownership of upgrades May 12, 2010 Statesman archives
Victors credit grassroots work May 15, 2006 Statesman archives
Wynn, McCracken coast; Martinez, Cole claim seats May 14, 2006 Statesman archives
3 hopefuls ready to rumble for council seat April 8, 2006 Statesman archives
Austin school bonds approved Sept. 12, 2004 Statesman archives
This report was made possible by contributions to The Austin Bulldog, which operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to provide investigative reporting in the public interest. You can help to sustain The Austin Bulldog’s reporting by making a tax-deductible contribution.