Campaign Finance

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Experts Discuss Money in Politics

 Experts Discuss Money in Politics

Diverse views on the effects of campaign finance,
the current state of regulation, and action needed

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted Tuesday, November 17, 2015 10:04am

“The League of Women Voters of the United States believes that the methods of financing political campaigns should ensure the public's right to know, combat corruption and undue influence, enable candidates to compete more equitably for public office and allow maximum citizen participation in the political process....”

—League of Women Voters National Board

Panelists Kurt Hildebrand, Michael Schneider, Craig McDonald, Sara Smith, and Roger BorgeltThe League of Women Voters Austin Area brought the League’s national study on Money in Politics into local focus with a Sunday afternoon panel discussion. A more politically diverse panel of five speakers would be difficult to imagine. The audience of nearly 50 people paid close attention and posed a number of questions for the panelists.

Kurt Hildebrand, chair of the Libertarian Party of Texas, said his party has taken no position on campaign finance or on money in politics, as the views of Libertarians encompass a broad range. Some believe there should be tight regulations and some believe there should be no regulation at all, he said.

“We want people to be as free as they possibly can be with equality, justice, and equal protection under the law.”

Council Member Zimmerman Sues City

 Council Member Zimmerman Sues City

Wants to overturn campaign finance restrictions
and could gain himself a direct personal benefit

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted Wednesday July 29, 2015 2:02am
Updated Wednesday August 5, 2015 10:46am (Houston court’s injunction was temporary, not permanent)

District 6 Council Member Don ZimmermanDon Zimmerman had a long history of filing lawsuits even before he won election to the District 6 seat on the Austin City Council last December.

In fact, while a candidate he sued The Austin Bulldog for defamation last October, lost the case in early January, and still owes $10,000 in attorney’s fees and sanctions for filing a baseless lawsuit. More than six months later he has not paid the debt despite efforts to collect.

Now he’s filed a federal lawsuit to overturn several aspects of the rules under which he ran for and won office. In his latest lawsuit filed July 27, 2015, Zimmerman seeks to eliminate or modify restrictions on political fundraising found in Article III Section 8 of the Austin City Charter.

The lawsuit explicitly states that Zimmerman seeks to eliminate these restrictions to prepare for his campaign for reelection in November 2016.

Jerad Najvar“Political speech is the very core of the First Amendment, but Austin’s campaign finance system seeks to control debate by controlling fundraising and spending,” said attorney Jerad Najvar of the Houston-based Najvar Law Firm, in a prepared statement. He represents Zimmerman in this lawsuit. “The result is that everybody in the world is free to speak, except for City candidates themselves.”

Campaign finance experts—and even seasoned political consultants who run Austin mayoral and city council elections—say rolling back the restrictions that Austin voters overwhelmingly approved in two City Charter elections would be a disaster for democracy at the local level. (More about that later.)

Zimmerman, a self-proclaimed fiscal conservative has in effect sued his employer, the City of Austin, which will have to spend money to defend the City Charter.

What the lawsuit seeks

Part 2: The $6.3 Million Election

 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 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

10-1 Elections Cost $6.3 Million

 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

Zimmerman Paid Wife For Campaign

 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 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 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