Zimmerman Complaint Finally Resolved

 Zimmerman Complaint Finally Resolved

Texas Ethics Commission took more
than two years to settle the matter

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2017
Posted Monday, June 26, 2017 2:33pm

Don ZimmermanAn ethics complaint against then District 6 Council Member Don Zimmerman was resolved by the Texas Ethics Commission June 12, 2017. It took the agency 28 months to get the job done.

The complaint filed February 5, 2015, alleged that Zimmerman illegally used campaign funds to pay his wife $2,000 for work she did for his 2014 council campaign.

The Texas Ethics Commission completed its consideration of the sworn complaint by entering into an Assurance of Voluntary Compliance with Zimmerman. The document states that Zimmerman acknowledges the prohibition against such expenditures, and he consented to forego adversarial evidentiary hearings and formal adjudication by the Commission.

Zimmerman escaped being fined for the infraction, common in similar cases such as In the Matter of James C. Doyal SC-31108180, because he had personally loaned $20,000 to his campaign and considered the $2,000 payment to his spouse as “partial reimbursement” for the loan.

In essence the Commission allowed Zimmerman to reclassify the campaign funds paid to his wife for her personal services as a partial repayment of a loan that he personally made to his campaign.

In a telephone interview today, Zimmerman told The Austin Bulldog that he had not been aware of the prohibition against paying his wife from campaign fund. This despite the fact that the City Clerk provides copies of applicable regulations to all candidates.

“If I had shacked up with Jennifer, then I could pay her while living in sin. That looks like marriage discrimination,” he said. “Once it was pointed out that the payment was improper, I said, “Fine, I’ll credit that payment against the loan.’ ”

Complainant dismayed

Ethics Reforms an Ongoing Struggle

 Ethics Reforms an Ongoing Struggle

Win some, lose some in the sausage
making of the Texas Legislature

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted September 22, 2015 2:49pm

The TV cameras and press coverage of presentations at the annual conference hosted by the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas September 17 focused heavily on a session featuring Wallace L. Hall Jr., the embattled regent of the University of Texas System, who was interviewed by Ross Ramsey, executive editor of the Texas Tribune.

Hall is big news, after all. His open-records crusade to investigate the flagship UT Austin campus triggered Travis County grand jury proceedings against him as well as attempts to impeach, neither of which were successful.

The other important discussions at the conference drew no coverage, as they involved no flashy controversial issues that dominate headlines. Instead they centered on more mundane but vital ongoing struggles to improve ethics and financial disclosures by public officials—meat and potatoes issues fundamental to open government.

Emily RamshawAn important panel discussion among two members of the Texas Ethics Commission board and a state representative who pushed the Commission’s legislative agenda in the last session was moderated by Texas Tribune editor Emily Ramshaw. The discussion covered the Commission’s weak enforcement powers, improved registration and reporting by state lobbyists paid to influence legislation and regulations, and the unhappy influence of so-called “dark money” spent to tilt election outcomes without reporting who contributed the funding.

Jim ClancyAttorney Jim Clancy, president of the Corpus Christi-based law firm Branscomb PC, is a former chairman and still a board member of the Commission. He was appointed by then Governor Rick Perry.

Clancy said lawmakers considering proposed ethics legislation “are not looking at what the public needs but what your next opponent will do.”

He advocates overhauling the state-mandated Personal Financial Statements required of state and local officeholders (and the Austin city manager and city attorney) by Local Government Code Chapter 145. “The reason why we disclose personal assets is to identify conflicts of interest.”

Ethics Bills Faces Complex Dynamics

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 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

Neighborhood Leader Files Ethics Complaint

Neighborhood Leader Files Ethics Complaint

Land Development Code Advisory Group Member
Neslund accused of failing to register as lobbyist

by Ken Mart in
© The Austin Bulldog 2014
Posted Thursday, July 24, 2013, 10:34pm
Updated Friday July 25, 2014 9:55am to link recording of statements made at press
Updated Friday, August 15, 2014 8:15pm

Update: The Ethics Review Commission met the evening of Tuesday, August 12, 2014. After spending more than an hour and a half in executive session, the Commission heard testimony from the complainant’s attorney; Fred Lewis, from respondent Melissa Neslund; and from her attorney, Casey Dobson of Scott Douglass & McConnico LLP. After hearing testimony the Commission members asked questions, debated matters, and on the motion of Commissioner James Ruiz, seconded by Commissioner Dennis Speight, voted 4-2 to dismiss the complaint. Voting in favor of the motion were Commissioners Ruiz, Speight, Austin Kaplan, and Peter Einhorn. Voting no were Commissioners Donna Beth McCormick and Velva Price.

Mary IngleThe president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, acting as an individual, lodged a Sworn Complaint Filed by Mary Ingle July 24, 2014 with the City of Austin alleging that an appointed member of the Land Development Code Advisory Group failed to register as a lobbyist.

The complaint names Melissa Neslund, a senior associate and project director for land use and entitlements with Bury Inc., a consulting firm founded by professional engineer Paul J. Bury III in 1984, according to the firm’s website.

The Austin City Council approved the establishment of the Advisory Group December 6, 2012, “to assist in the development of a new Land Development Code per the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan.” The minutes for City Council Agenda Item 74 of December 6, 2012 state the resolution specifically prohibited members “who are registered or required to register as a lobbyist under City Code Chapter 4-8 or who are employed by a person registered or required to register under that chapter.”

The Austin City Clerk’s website lists the names of 65 lobbyists registered with the city. That list does not contain Neslund’s name or the name of anyone else The Austin Bulldog could identify as working for Bury Inc.

In a e-mail responding to The Austin Bulldog’s request for comment, Neslund provided a written statement, as follows:

Melissa Neslund“I am not a lobbyist (registered or unregistered), and I do not undertake in lobbying activities. My role at Bury is to support real estate industry clients through the City’s land development process.  At no time during that process do I lobby or solicit support for my projects from any City official. If I (or my firm) are working on a project that requires lobbying, we refer our clients to a land use attorney. 

Monitoring City Staff Conflicts of Interest

Monitoring City Staff Conflicts of Interest

Public information requests and ongoing investigation
triggers reforms by Austin’s Ethics Review Commission

Investigative Report by Joseph Caterine and Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2014
Posted Wednesday June 4, 2014 10:33am

The Austin Bulldog’s investigation indicates that 12 non-elected City of Austin officials failed to file Statements of Financial Information that were due in April 2013. That number is disputed by the City. (More about that later.) A public information request for the statements due in April 2014 is awaiting the City’s response.

Of the 147 Statements that were filed by non-elected officials in 2013, only 56 forms were filled out correctly, according to The Austin Bulldog’s analysis.

This is not a story exposing conflicts of interest among City of Austin staff members but about the city’s lack of oversight that would prevent or assist in the discovery of such conflicts.

This investigation exposed problems the city has in identifying which city staff members are required to file and found the city has done nothing to discipline those who file late or not at all.

The stir caused by six public information requests filed for this investigation between January 6 and April 2 caused the city staff and Ethics Review Commission to initiate a number of reforms. These reforms include revising reporting forms to clarify what information is required and agreeing to perform annual audits after the filing deadline.

Peter Einhorn“It’s always been my position that it seems like a waste to make people file this information if nobody actually looks at it,” Ethics Review Commission member Peter Einhorn said at the April 29 meeting.

And that's one of the key findings of this investigation: City Code requires designated city officials to file these reports but, beyond reminding officials to file, oversight has been nonexistent.

City Hosts Open Government Symposium

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 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....”

City Council Tackles Charter Recommendations

City Council Tackles Charter Recommendations

Redistricting Expert, Charter Revision Committee Members,
and Grass-roots Group Critical of Task Force Plan

By Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog
Posted Thursday, April 26, 2012, 9:30 pm

Although the City Council could wait until August to set the ballot for the City Charter revisions to be put before voters in November, action is already moving forward.

Seven items were on the April 26 council meeting agenda that dealt with recommendations offered by the 2012 Charter Revision Committee. Four were passed, two were postponed, and one was withdrawn in the face of strong opposition and advice from outside counsel.

Charter Changes to Enhance Accountability

Posted Wednesday, December 14, 2011 1:50 pm
Thirteen Charter Changes and Counting

Charter Revision Committee’s Next Job:
Tackle Plan for Geographic Representation

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2011

The council-appointed 2012 Charter Revision Committee has now formulated a baker’s dozen recommendations that will be forwarded to the Austin City Council for the planned November 2012 charter amendment election.

The most important task assigned to the committee—recommendingwer whether council members should be elected from geographic districts and if so under what plan—will be taken up at a meeting scheduled for January 5.

That’s when the committee will discuss the pros and cons of the current all-at-large system vis-à-vis hybrid (some geographic districts plus some council members at-large) and single-member systems (in which all but the mayor would represent geographic districts).

At that same meeting the committee will discuss the pros and cons of several different plans under consideration (a 6-2-1 plan proposed by Mayor Lee Leffingwell, an 8-4-1 plan advocated by two citizens, and a 10-1 plan advocated by Austinites for Geographic Representation, a broad coalition of organizations and individuals that is petitioning to get this plan on the ballot).

The committee will not vote on these matters until a later meeting, scheduled for January 19.

In its September 29 meeting the committee approved seven recommendations for charter changes (more about that later).

At the December 8 meeting the committee considered nine proposals and voted to recommend that the City Council put six of these on the ballot for voters to decide, as follows:

• To permit fundraising by election winners to retire campaign debt.

• To raise the maximum funds that may be held in an officeholder’s account to $40,000.

• To give the city’s Ethics Review Commission more power to address campaign finance and campaign disclosure violations.

• To require reporting of last-minute campaign contributions.

• To require electronic filing of campaign finance and lobbying reports.

• To require voter approval before issuing revenue bonds of more than $50 million.

These decisions were based on the recommendations formulated by the committee’s five-member working group. The committee discussions and recommendations are detailed below.

Responses to City Council resolutions