Commission hearing an ethics complaint commits violations

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Montage of Ethics Review Commission Member Debra Danburg making outrageous faces for the camera during a live airing of the Commission meeting of May 12, 2021.

Triggers new complaints filed with District Attorney, Ethics Review Commission, and City Auditor

Rarely if ever have such antics been seen in a City of Austin public meeting.

Olivia Overturf

On May 12th the City’s Ethics Review Commission spent nearly two hours discussing a complaint against Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison lodged by Olivia Overturf. Commission members tuned in remotely for the meeting.

The complaint was ultimately dismissed.

But the substance of the discussion was eclipsed, in hindsight, by the fact that Commission Member Debra Danburg made faces at her computer camera that could only be described as bizarre, as seen in the photo montage published here.

Luis Soberon

Neither Commission Chair Luis Soberon nor any other commissioner seemed to notice Danburg’s actions. None so much as mentioned it or asked why she was acting this way. Nevertheless her strange conduct was plainly visible in the live airing of the meeting on ATXN, the City’s flagship channel. The video may now be viewed on the ATXN archive.

Danburg did not respond to The Austin Bulldog’s voice message, text message. and email asking for comment.

When The Austin Bulldog contacted Soberon for comment about this matter, he said that—because Overturf had subsequently filed a complaint with the Ethics Review Commission about this conduct—City Code Section 2-7-43 barred him from responding.

That section of the Code states:

“After a complaint has been filed and during the pendency of a complaint before the Ethics Review Commission, a member of the commission may not communicate directly or indirectly with any party or person about any issue of fact or law regarding the complaint, except at a meeting of the commission….”

Did Soberon do something worse?

Nguyen Stanton

At one point in the preliminary hearing, Commissioner Nguyen Stanton said that, in her view, the Commission should be able to proceed to a final hearing concerning Overturf’s complaint. She said that was appropriate because the complaint alleged a violation of City Code Section 2-7-62 (Standards of Conduct) which is within the Commission’s jurisdiction.

Chair Soberon replied, “So I don’t know if I quite follow that…I’m going to hold up the complaint to the screen. And I think there might be some slight confusion, some difference between what’s on the form and what she’s actually complaining about.”

Luis Soberon lifts complaint to camera, displaying Olivia Overturf’s personal information. This image is blurred to conceal that information.

Soberon then lifted the complaint in front of his computer’s camera and said, “So the [complaint] form kind of lists, where they’re filing the complaint, those provisions and those sections of the City Code that are within our jurisdiction. And then separately,” he said, as he lifted the next page of the complaint to the camera, “this is where a complainant will allege which part of the Code is being violated.”

In displaying a printed copy of Overturf’s complaint—specifically the page that contained her address, telephone number and email address—Soberon may have violated a criminal provision of the Texas Public Information Act.

Section 552.137 states, “an e-mail address of a member of the public that is provided for the purpose of communicating electronically with a governmental body is confidential and not subject to disclosure….”

There’s a significant penalty for violations.

Section 552.352(a) states, “A person commits an offense if the person distributes information considered confidential under the terms of this chapter.” Section 552.352(b) states, “An offense under this section is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not more than $1,000; confinement in the county jail for not more than six months; or both the fine and confinement.” Further Section 552.352(c) states, “A violation under this section constitutes official misconduct.”

Because of Overturf’s pending complaint against Soberon over displaying her personal information, that part of the Ethics Review Commission’s video recording has been blurred out so that her personal information can no longer be seen in the ATXN Archive.

What was the original complaint?

Overturf’s complaint involved the response to comments she made during Citizens Communication at the March 25th City Council meeting.

Her complaint filed April 12th states that Harper-Madison’s response was disparaging toward her and violated City Code Section 2-7-62(B) Standards of Conduct:

“No City official or employee shall formally appear before the body of which the official or employee is a member while acting as an advocate for himself or any other person, group, or entity.” 

Natasha Harper-Madison

In her Citizen Communication, Overturf criticized Harper-Madison for, among other things, an alleged slow response to the uninhabitable conditions experienced by residents of the Mount Carmel Village apartments during the winter storm. The apartments are located at 2504 New York Drive in East Austin, within Harper-Madison’s District 1. Overturf attributed the slow response to Harper-Madison’s alleged close ties to the property owner.

Harper-Madison, after the mayor recognized her to speak, replied to Overturf. She said, “I’d like to just start by saying a lot of what the previous caller [Overturf] said is absolutely spot on and I share the sentiment, but so much of it is either misinformed or categorically untrue.”

The Ethics Review Commission conducted a preliminary hearing May 12th to hear Overturf’s complaint. The purpose of a preliminary hearing is to determine if there are reasonable grounds to believe that a violation of City Code within the Commission’s jurisdiction has occurred. If the commission finds reasonable grounds, then it schedules a final hearing. If not, the complaint is dismissed.

After nearly two hours of deliberation about Overturf’s complaint, the Commission voted 3-3, with one abstention, on a motion to proceed to a final hearing. The motion failed and Commission Chair Soberon announced that under Section 2-7-44 of the City Code, the complaint would be dismissed.

Danburg failed to maintain decorum

Danburg’s conduct appears to be a violation of City Code Section 2-1-48(A), which states,

“Each person and board member attending a board meeting should observe decorum. A person or board member should not speak out of turn, use disparaging or abusive language, or make threats against any person during a board meeting.”

Further, Section 2-1-48(C) states, “No City board member shall engage in conduct or use language that is offensive, harassing…toward an individual or a group when interacting with other City board members…or members of the public, when the interaction is part of the board member’s official duties.”

Ann Kitchen

Danburg is serving her second term on the Ethics Review Commission, which expires in February 2023. She was appointed to that post by Council Member Ann Kitchen.

Kitchen did not respond to a request for comment so it’s not clear what action, if any, she may take regarding her appointee’s conduct.

Other council members have wasted no time firing a board or commission member who steps out of line.

Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria asked his appointee to the Parks and Recreation Board to resign, “citing her lack of decorum during a tense discussion” at the Board’s May 25th meeting, according to a June 3rd story in the Austin Monitor.

Who is Debra Danburg?

Danburg is a retired attorney. According to online records of the State Bar of Texas she graduated from the University of Houston Law School in November 1980.

A Wikipedia page states that from 1981 to 2003 she represented Houston in the Texas House of Representatives. Her notable accomplishments are listed as legislation that updated rape laws and amended them to be more “gender equal.” In addition she passed legislation to reform punishment for sexual offenders that emphasized reform. She is also credited with passing HB 263, which ended spousal exemption from sexual assault.

“Danburg can also be credited with passage of the ‘3-G’ legislation, which ensured that criminals convicted of capital murder, aggravated kidnapping, aggravated robbery or aggravated sexual assault serve their full sentence without parole, while also supporting alternative punishments that included rehabilitation counseling, restitution centers, and boot camps.”

Warren Chisum

She also gained considerable attention through an exchange with State Representative Warren Chisum (R-Pampa) concerning the state’s sodomy law. The Austin Chronicle covered that debate at length and cited much of actual dialogue. A video of that debate on the House floor then wound up in a segment of the Dildo Diaries, a 2002 documentary directed by Laura Barton and Judy Wilder.

In 2007 Danburg published a detailed account of her diagnosis and treatment for pancreatic cancer.

A longer biography about her is contained in the Guide to the Debra Danburg Papers, in the Texas Archival Resources Online.

Overturf filed more complaints

In the wake of the Ethics Review Commission meeting, Overturf May 17th filed with the City Clerk’s office another complaint against Harper-Madison, this time alleging six violations of City Code. If that complaint is adjudged to be within the Commission’s jurisdiction, it may be scheduled for a preliminary hearing at the June 9th meeting. The agenda for that meeting has not yet been published.

On May 18th Overturf filed a “Request to Investigate” form with the Travis County District Attorney’s Office. That complaint concerns Chair Soberon displaying her personal information on ATXN during the May 12th meeting. The District Attorney’s Office via email today confirmed “that the office has received the complaint and it is under review.”

On June 1st Overturf filed a complaint with the City Clerk’s office concerning Danburg’s “obscene and inappropriate gestures” including “simulated forced bulimia.” Bulimia involves an obsessive desire to lose weight and binge eating often followed by self-induced vomiting.

Overturf also filed Integrity Violation Reports with the City Auditor’s Office on May 13th and May 19th. The former report concerned Soberon’s breach of confidentiality. The latter involved Danburg’s lack of decorum.

Can commissioners hear complaints about themselves?

Overturf requested that Ethics Review Commission Members Soberon and Danburg be disqualified from participating in hearings involving her complaints about their conduct.

Steve Sheets

Attorney Steve Sheets of Sheets & Crossfield PLLC, who serves as outside counsel for the Commission, responded via email May 27th with a lengthy legal analysis.

“The Ethics Review Commission is governed by Chapter 2-7 of the Austin Code of Ordinances. The Code does not provide any process or procedure for a party to request that a member of the Commission be disqualified from participating in a proceeding before the Commission.”

His conclusion: “Chair Soberon and Commissioner Danburg will make their own determination of whether to participate in your complaint or not.”

Bill Aleshire
Bill Aleshire

Attorney Bill Aleshire, who represents The Austin Bulldog in obtaining information through public information requests and assists in other legal matters, takes exception to Sheets’ statement.

“If this were a judicial proceeding and the Code of Judicial Conduct applied, no judge would hear the complaint after the complaining party filed a complaint against the judge,” he wrote in a June 2 email.

“[I]f he is referring to Olivia Overturf’s complaint against Danburg, Danburg must recuse herself. Same with the Soberon complaint.”

Soberon said he was inclined to do just that.

In a May 24th interview, the told the Bulldog, “There are certain conditions that could directly implicate a member of the commission, and we would have to deal with recusals as appropriate. Other members not accused would deal with it.”

Photo of Ken MartinTrust indicators: Bulldog founder and editor Ken Martin has been covering local government and politics in the Austin area since 1981. See more about Ken on the About page.

Links to related documents: All of these files have been redacted to remove Olivia Overturf’s personal information:

Olivia Overturf Sworn Complaint of April 12, 2021 (4 pages)

Olivia Overturf Integrity Report of May 13, 2021 (1 page)

Olivia Overturf Sworn Complaint of May 17, 2021 (21 pages)

Olivia Overturf Integrity Report of May 19, 2021 (8 pages)

Olivia Overturf Sworn Complaint of June 1, 2021 (23 pages)

Steve Sheets legal analysis of May 27, 2021 (1 page)

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