City staff failed to stop mayor from misusing city resources

HomeCity of AustinCity AttorneyCity staff failed to stop mayor from misusing city resources

Adler used city-owned television to make political endorsements

City staff failed to prevent Mayor Steve Adler from making candidate endorsements that were aired live on a city-run television station last December, on the first day of early voting, even though he told them beforehand that that’s what he intended to do when he got in front of the cameras.

According to emails obtained by the Bulldog, Adler informed his communications director, who in turn informed executives overseeing ATXN, that he would “give remarks about the mayor’s race and the candidates” in the December 2022 runoff election.

It’s illegal under the Texas Election Code to use city resources to engage in political advertising. Adler endorsed two candidates in remarks December 1, 2022, broadcast on the city’s ATXN TV channel and published online.

While not commenting on this particular incident, a city spokesman explained how the process for approving the use of ATXN is supposed to work:

“[I]f the Mayor or Council Member issues a press advisory with the purpose to give remarks about a city election, CPIO (Communications and Public Information Office) staff would reach out to their communications staff to determine if they are requesting ATXN support. If yes, we would determine if the content of the news conference will include just general information about the election or will it include electioneering or endorsement of any candidate/proposition on the ballot.

“If the news conference is going to including electioneering or endorsement of a candidate/proposition, CPIO staff would inform the communications staff of the elected official that ATXN cannot provide any support to televise or stream the news conference.”

But these policies designed to prevent the use of ATXN for electioneering were not followed.

Emails detailing how the mayor’s press conference came about started with Adler’s email to his communications director, Elizabeth Lewis, in which he said, “I am going to vote early on Thursday at 9:30am at City Hall and invite the media to join me. I will give remarks about the mayor’s race and the candidates.” (Emphasis added.)

Lewis pasted that information into her email and sent it to three people on the CPIO staff: Jessica King, Keith Reeves, and Tara Olson.

Keith Reeves

Reeves, acting deputy director of CPIO, responded 10 minutes later to warn, “Clerk’s office and elections staff are very adamant that no cameras are allowed near the voting area. So maybe leave out an invitation for media to join him when he votes.”

Lewis replies eight minutes later, “Yes, very aware of that rule!”

Subsequent emails show that no one voiced an objection to the mayor’s written intention to talk about “the mayor’s race and the candidates.”

As a result, Adler was able to go on ATXN December 1st and endorse council candidates Zohaib “Zo” Qadri in District 9 and Jose Velasquez in District 3. Both were elected.

In response to the Bulldog’s request for comment about why the CPIO staff failed to raise objections to the use of ATXN for this event, a City of Austin spokesperson, said in an email, “The incident is currently under investigation and because of that we are not in a position to comment further.”

What Adler said

“Each of the races on this ballot could be very, very close, and I’m here to tell everybody that every vote is going to count and every vote is extremely important in these races.”

“I’m about to go vote, so I thought I’d give you my thoughts on the election the voting that’s about to take place here. I am in District 9 so I’m going to be voting in the runoff election today for council. I’m happy  to see Zo (District 9 runoff candidate Zohaib Qadri) here today. We’re going to vote together. I want you to know that I am voting for Zo.” He then went on at length about why he would vote for Qadri. “I am excited to be able to cast a vote for Zo in the District 9 runoff.”

“By the way, I can’t vote in District 3. I don’t live there. But if I lived in District 3 then I would be voting for Jose Velasquez.”

Adler went on to tout the qualifications of mayoral runoff candidates Celia Israel and Kirk Watson, but did not endorse either of them.

He did not mention the runoff candidates for District 5, Ryan Alter and Stephanie Bazan.

At the end of his remarks, Adler went into City Hall to vote.

Adler’s remarks may be seen and heard on the ATXN archived video. Records obtained from ATXN indicate the archived video was viewed 320 times through January 5th but there is no indication of how many times the 10-minute event may have been viewed live December 1st.

Adler’s endorsements drew criminal complaints

Linda Guerrero
Mackenzie Kelly

As the Bulldog reported January 4th, attorney Bill Aleshire, representing Council Member Mackenzie Kelly and District 9 council candidate Lina Guerrero, filed sworn complaints with the county attorney, city attorney, and Texas Ethics Commission.

County Attorney Delia Garza—For violation of Texas Election Code Section 255.003(a)for unlawful use of public funds for political advertising, a Class A misdemeanor, and Texas Election Code Section 61.003 for electioneering within 100 feet of an outside door of a polling place.

City Attorney Anne Morgan— For violation of City Charter Article XII, Section 2, which prohibits a city officer from soliciting or exerting influence over any other officer or employee of the city to favor any particular candidate for office in the city. This is a misdemeanor offense punishable by a fine of no more than $200 and forfeiture of office, a moot point since Adler is now out of office.

Texas Ethics Commission— For violation of Texas Election Code Section 255.003(a) for using city resources to engage in political advertising as defined in Texas Election Code Section 251.001(16) by endorsing candidates.

Photo of Ken MartinTrust indicators: Ken Martin has been doing investigative reporting in the three-county Austin metro area since 1981. His aggressive reporting twice garnered first-place national awards for investigative reporting. Both of those projects resulted in successful criminal prosecutions. His 2011 investigation of the Austin City Council’s open meetings violations triggered a 20-month investigation by the Travis County attorney that resulted in the mayor and council members signing deferred prosecution agreements to avoid being charged, tried, and if convicted serving one to six months in jail and forfeiting their elective offices. See more on Ken on the About page. Email [email protected].

Related documents: 

ATXN records showing the crew assigned for the mayor’s press conference of December 1, 2022 (1 page)

ATXN records showing page views for the archived video of the mayor’s press conference (1 page)

Mayor Steve Adler and other emails that indicate how the mayor’s press conference came about, November 29-30, 2022 (18 pages)

Sworn Complaint filed by runoff candidate Linda Guerrero, January 4, 2023 (13 pages)

Sworn Complaint filed by City Council Member Mackenzie Kelly, January 4, 2023 (13 pages)

Yasmeen Hassan’s email explaining the procedures that should prevent use of ATXN for electioneering, February 15, 2023 (4 pages)

Related Bulldog coverage:

Criminal complaints hit Mayor Adler on final days in office, January 4, 2022


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