Former county judge warns of potential ethical lapses
No sooner had Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza filed this morning to run for Travis County attorney in the 2020 Democratic Party than attorney Bill Aleshire emailed her a stinging three-page letter, “Your Campaign Ethics Problem.”
Aleshire, a former Travis County judge and tax assessor-collector, went straight to the heart of the matter, writing “I am calling on you to either immediately resign from the Austin City Council or pledge to voters that you will still abide by the Austin campaign contribution ethics limitations you would otherwise be subject to as a council member.”
Aleshire’s letter states the county attorney plays a “special role” in “enforcing broad ethics-based transparency laws like campaign finance laws, open records, and open meetings countywide for all governmental bodies in Travis County.”
Perhaps the foremost local example of the need for a county attorney to perform those duties happened in response to The Austin Bulldog’s investigative report of January 25, 2011. County Attorney David Escamilla—whose decision not to seek reelection in 2020 drew candidates to succeed him—launched an immediate investigation of Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell and council members. The report showed the City Council members for years had been following an institutionalized practice of violating the Texas Open Meetings Act by conducting round-robin, one-on-one and two-on-one private meetings before every council meeting. In effect the council was engaged in a conspiracy to avoid compliance with the Act by establish a “walking quorum.”
Following Escamilla’s 20-month investigation, the mayor and council members signed deferred prosecution agreements to avoid being charged and tried. As reported by the Bulldog October 25, 2012, the investigation found no evidence of corruption, but voluminous proof of communications among the mayor and council members by every means possible, the sum of which violate the criminal provisions of the Act.
Aleshire’s letter to Garza goes on to claim “there is absolutely nothing in your Council service, or your very limited law practice, that indicates you have any commitment to setting high standards for ethics or transparency laws; nothing at all.”
(Disclosure: Aleshire has represented the Bulldog in winning two lawsuits against the City and Austin City Council members in 2011 over failures to comply with the Texas Public Information Act. He also filed the Bulldog’s civil complaint with the county attorney over the same issues and today continues to support the Bulldog’s public information requests.)
Garza took a quick break from today’s special-called council meeting to respond to Aleshire’s attack. In a brief telephone interview she said, “I’m not surprised with his bullying behind his keyboard and I understand why he is intimidated by a young Latina lawyer.
“He wouldn’t be the first white man to try to intimidate women of color seeking a leadership position.”
Aleshire responded, saying, “[P]laying the distraction tactic of the race/gender card against me might work if my history of supporting women for office was different, including Nelda Wells Spears, Susana Almanza, Margaret Moore, Velva Price, Brigid Shea, Margaret Gomez, Dana DeBeauvoir, Vikki Goodwin, Ora Houston, Sally Hernandez, Leslie Poole, Laura Morrison, etc.”
Ethical issues in campaign fundraising
“If you run for County Attorney while keeping your City Council position (and city paycheck), you are immediately faced with a very serious ethics problem from the day your campaign begins, and the day you accept money from that ‘still secret’ PAC.”
A council member’s salary for FY 2020, which began October 1, is $79,934, according to Andy Tate, senior public information specialist.
“You have had a PAC raising money for your County Attorney race, the source(s) and amounts for which have not been disclosed,” Aleshire’s letter claims.
The PAC to which Aleshire refers was established through appointment of a treasurer July 11, 2019, and it isn’t required to file a campaign financial report until next January 15. (More about the PACs later.)
“Austin campaign finance laws would prohibit any person from contributing more than $400 to your campaign, would limit a contribution from a lobbyist to $25, would limit you to one campaign committee, would limit amounts contributed to a Political Action Committee supporting you, and limit the amount you receive from a PAC.”
Garza replied, saying, “I have done nothing unethical and I find it curious that he has years of fundraising while in elective office. I assume he will say that his collecting large donations did not affect his decision-making.
“I will continue to vote for equitable policies and I’m certain my votes will align with my voting record, and nothing will change that.”
To which Aleshire replied, “If she thinks it’s ethical to sit on the council and take campaign contributions that would not be legal for any other council member to take, she’s apparently blind to the ethical issues that I have legitimately raised.”
As to allegations that her legal résumé is thin, the 2010 graduate of Gonzaga University’s law school, and former assistant attorney general before being elected to the City Council in 2014, said, “I think maybe he doesn’t understand the job of county attorney is to be an administrator and policymaker.
“I’m not aware of previous county attorneys practicing in courtrooms while county attorney. They are administrators and policymakers and I bring that experience.”
To which Aleshire replied, “If that is your response, it helps prove that your ethical standards are very low and it proves you do not understand the office you are seeking.”
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Late breaking Garza statement
Just 35 minutes after this story was published the Draft Delia Campaign sent the following media statement, quoted here in its entirety:
“This is an insincere political hit job, nothing less. It’s especially hypocritical coming from someone who himself was a sitting elected official who was able to raise unlimited amounts of money while running for County office. Bill only seems concerned about donations to progressives like Delia, while overlooking his own donation record and those of other county officials.
“The Draft Delia Campaign has met all disclosure timelines, same as every other candidate and campaign. We will continue to meet all transparency requirements and disclose all donors.
“Delia Garza has been a trailblazer her entire career, becoming the first Latina Council Member and Mayor Pro Tem. We hope she’ll be a trailblazer again by becoming our first Latina County Attorney.”
Multiple fundraising channels
Garza filed an appointment of campaign treasurer shortly before 9am this morning, designating Yvonne Massey Davis to carry out that function.
Massey’s LinkedIn page lists her as senior director of public engagement for Organizing for Action, which seeks to mobilize supporters in favor of former President Obama’s legislative priorities. She was a public affairs officer for the Lower Colorado River Authority 1993-2003 and a field organizer and national delegate for Obama for America.
The “secret PAC” Aleshire mentioned, he said, was announced on the Draft Delia Garza for County Attorney Facebook page. That page contains a link to www.draftdelia.com, which is labeled the Progressive Justice Now PAC.
The Progressive Justice Now PAC appointed Brian McGiverin treasurer July 11, 2019, according to the Travis County Clerk’s website (the date stamp is illegible).
McGiverin is executive director of the Austin Community Law Center, an organization whose goal is to make legal services radically more affordable.
He said, “Fundraising has gone well; we are compiling our financial reports so that we can fully disclose everything we’ve raised. We have no fundraising planned, since our goal was to draft Delia.”
Neither Garza’s own campaign nor the Progressive Justice Now PAC will be required to report before January 15, 2020, for contributions received through December 31, 2019.
Other county attorney candidates
Denton’s website indicates he worked in the county attorney’s office for 13 years and chaired the Travis County Family Violence Task Force, which recommended creation of a new domestic-violence court in Travis County. In 1988 he was elected to be that court’s first judge and was reelected five more times.
Eiserloh’s website states she has served in the county attorney’s Civil Litigation Division for almost 10 years and leads its Employment Team. Before that she worked in the City of Austin’s Law Department.
Selvera’s website states he is a criminal defense attorney and will bring a new perspective and change the way misdemeanor offenses are prosecuted.
Republicans running for county offices
The Travis County Republican Party said in a phone interview this afternoon that no one had filed for county attorney and none were expected to do so before the 6pm deadline. In fact a few minutes after 5pm the party’s telephone number was answering with a voicemail message.
The Texas Secretary of State’s website indicates that GOP candidates filed for just four offices in Travis County:
Raul Vargas filed for sheriff to run against incumbent Democrat Sally Hernandez.
Todd Douglas filed for tax assessor-collector to run against incumbent Democrat Bruce Elfant.
Marilyn Jackson filed for Precinct 1 county commissioner to run against incumbent Democrat Jeff Travillion.
Becky Bray filed for Precinct 3 county commissioner, the seat being vacated by Gerald Daugherty, who will not run for reelection in 2020. Bray ran for the District 8 seat on the Austin City Council in 2014 and placed third in a five-candidate field.
Related Bulldog coverage:
Ken Martin has been covering local government and politics in the Austin area since 1981. See more on Ken on the About page.
Email [email protected].
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