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Attorneys question money spent to boost Thomas campaign against Lewis

Tuesday, April 25, 2000 by

Austin Police PAC, Thomas Henderson chipping in big bucks

The political contest between incumbent Council Member Willie Lewis and chief opponent Danny Thomas is beginning to get ugly, with charges and counter charges flying over how campaign money is being spent and how the city authorities are doing nothing about it. Attorneys for the reelection campaign of Council Member Lewis are alleging that Thomas is getting financial support that is not being properly reported. Fred Lewis (no relation to the candidate), executive director of Campaigns for People, and Cristen Feldman of Texans for Public Justice, are attorneys acting without pay in the case, Fred Lewis tells In Fact Daily. They faxed a letter to City Attorney Andy Martin and City Clerk Shirley Brown yesterday making a "formal demand for immediate enforcement" of the City of Austin's election laws.

"It's well known that the city does not enforce its election laws, and that encourages people not to follow them," Fred Lewis says. "I believe in the radical concept that the law should be enforced. I think it breeds disrespect for the law and cynicism on the part of citizens if the city has laws and does not enforce them."

Assistant City Attorney John Steiner tells In Fact Daily, "While an election's going on, it's certainly not appropriate for us to referee issues between candidates." Steiner said, "The city clerk is not an enforcement officer. The city clerk is (maintaining) a filing cabinet. People file their reports and they say what they say, and file what they file…So if anyone feels a city ordinance has been violated, it would be handled as any City Code violation by going to Municipal Court to file a sworn complaint."

The letter from attorneys Lewis and Feldman claims that Senior Police Officer Thomas–who along with Nelson Elester Linder is vying for Willie Lewis' Place 6 seat on the council dais–has benefited from unreported independent expenditures by the Austin Police Political Action Committee (AP PAC), in the form of campaign signs and mailed literature.

An independent expenditure, as defined by City Code Chapter 2-9, "means an expenditure on behalf of, or opposing the election of, any candidate, when the expenditure is made independently of the candidate and the candidate's committee, and without the prior consent or cooperation or strategic communication between an independent person and the candidate and/or the candidate's committee."

Valencia Escobar, office manager for the Austin Police Association (APA), said an attorney had advised the AP PAC "has to inform the Danny Thomas campaign what was spent and what it was spent on. Danny has to report it to the city…The City Clerk said the (reporting) form has to be filled out by the candidate." APA President Mike Sheffield just got back late last night from a week's vacation and was tucking his children into bed when In Fact Daily called. He said he could not address the matter properly before getting to the APA office and determining what has been done.

Linda Dailey, campaign manager for Danny Thomas, faxed a copy of an AP PAC letter dated March 30 that was addressed to the Danny Thomas Campaign. The one-sentence letter, signed by Sean Mannix, chair of the AP PAC, states, "Please let this letter serve as notification that independent expenditures in the amount of $7,395.25 have been spent by the Austin Police PAC on political signs announcing our endorsement of Danny Thomas for City Council Place 6."

The campaign finance report filed by Danny Thomas April 6 lists on the front page, in a block provided for direct campaign expenditures by other individuals, the Austin Police PAC. However, there is no indication of the amount of the AP PAC expenditures. "To say we benefited from unreported independent expenditures is inaccurate, Dailey says, "There is no place on the form to report the amount of independent expenditures."

City Code Chapter 2-9-21 requires that independent expenditures in an aggregate amount exceeding $2,500 during any calendar year for the purpose of promoting the election or defeat of a candidate in a city election shall file a report with the City Clerk within seven business days after making such independent expenditures. In addition, any person making such independent expenditures shall file a sworn statement that the expenditures were made without the prior consent of the affected candidate and without strategic communication. APA President Sheffield said last night he did not know if that report has been filed with the City Clerk but would find out today.

Thomas Henderson slammed too

Lewis and Feldman's letter charges that Danny Thomas' campaign is headquartered in a building owned by Thomas Henderson at 1224 E. 12th St. and Thomas should be reporting rent expenditures on that space or reporting an in-kind contribution from Henderson for donation of that space. Property records of Travis Central Appraisal District do indicate that Henderson owns that property, which has a market value of $29,000. There is no indication of rent expenses, in-kind or paid, on Danny Thomas' April 6 campaign finance report. Dailey tells In Fact Daily the candidate will be paying rent on the campaign headquarters and will report it, but the campaign had not paid any rent at the time of filing Thomas' campaign finance report April 6. "We had not been here 30 days when the April 6 report was filed," Dailey says. She says the campaign occupied the space around mid-March and phone service was activated March 20. "We are paying $125 a month rent for the facility, which is the same rate charged to the Ron Davis campaign by Henderson," Dailey says. Henderson is a former Dallas Cowboy football player who was going to run against Willie Lewis this year, but was barred by law from doing so because he is a convicted felon.

The allegations by attorneys Lewis and Feldman on behalf of Willie Lewis prompted countercharges by a fired-up Dailey. She faxed copies of correspondence in which on March 21 she filed an open records request with the City of Austin to obtain details about any and all sexual harassment charges filed on Council Member Lewis. The open records request–which named two specific female employees in the city clerk's office–stemmed from a front-page story of Oct. 1, 1998, in The Capitol Times. The newspaper reported that a complaint of sexual harassment filed against the council member June 19, 1998, had been resolved to the satisfaction of the employee, who was not named. The Capitol Times story said the complaint chronicled incidents over an eight-month period and was obtained by the newspaper through a Sept. 4, 1998, open records request.

City of Austin correspondence indicated that Dailey's open records request was referred to Attorney General John Cornyn April 12, stating, "the city wishes to withhold the requested information and has asked for a decision from the attorney general about whether the information is within an exception to public disclosure." Dailey said that's not kosher. "They're trying to delay it until after the election," Dailey says. She said rules for open records state that once a record has been released, it is not appropriate to request an AG's opinion about releasing it a second time. It was too late last night to obtain information from the city about why the AG's opinion was requested.

David Terrell, campaign manager for Willie Lewis, says he was not aware of Dailey's open records request but he got the information from the city himself in January through an open records request made without Willie Lewis' knowledge. He says his open records request did not name any employees and the copy he was provided had the complainant's name blacked out. "Dailey requested it with employee names and that's a different kind of request," Terrell said, when informed by In Fact Daily that Linda Dailey had been denied the information that he obtained. "My report is complete and only one woman was discussed," Terrell says. "It was resolved and Willie apologized, and Willie and the employee still work together."

Whatever the outcome of the Lewis and Feldman letter to the city, you can bet that the Danny Thomas vs. Willie Lewis battle isn't over yet. Last week, Thomas Henderson–who recently won the Texas lottery–filed a report of $25,000 for independent expenditures on behalf of Danny Thomas. "It does not indicate what it was spent for," Dena Reed, a paralegal in the city clerk's office, tells In Fact Daily.

Terrell says he knows what Thomas Henderson's money is being used for. He says he got confirmation from TV Channels 7, 8, 24 and 36 that they had sold air time to Thomas Henderson. Terrell says the stations disclose this information because of the possibility that the Willie Lewis campaign will buy air time to counter the commercials. "Danny Thomas and Thomas Henderson pretty much blatantly violated Austin's laws, as did the AP PAC," Terrell says. "It's ironic that political organizations run by police officers are not following the law." Terrell says the Willie Lewis campaign has not decided whether it will buy TV time to counter Henderson's ads, which Terrell says will start Wednesday, April 27, on some stations.

Dailey accuses attorneys for the Lewis campaign of "making completely unfounded allegations." "Danny is going to kick Willie's butt on May 6th. Willie Lewis is running scared, but his time left on the council is limited. Get ready to pack your bags."

Hays County Commissioners Court wins judgment in Open Meetings lawsuit

Hays County Water Planning Partnership hasn't decided whether to appeal

Score it Hays County Commissioners Court 1, Hays County Water Planning Partnership (HCWPP) zero. A visiting judge yesterday tossed out the lawsuit brought by the HCWPP and its chair, Erin Foster, that alleged violations of the Open Meetings Act by members of the Commissioners Court. A summary judgment was decided in favor of the defendants for both allegations in the lawsuit.

The original complaint alleged–and the Commissioners Court did not dispute–that on Aug. 12, 1999, County Judge Jim Powers and Commissioners Russ Molenaar and Bill Burnett attended an event at the Salt Lick Restaurant. As reported by In Fact Daily Aug. 17, 1999, the judge and commissioners attended a meeting hosted by Newhall Land & Farming Co., which had optioned 6,000 acres of the Rutherford Ranch for a development. (Newhall subsequently withdrew from that project.) In Fact Daily Aug. 19 reported the HCWPP lawsuit. The meeting was not posted as a meeting of the Commissioners Court, although a quorum of the Commissioners Court was present. The lawsuit was later amended to complain of an Oct. 26, 1999, Commissioners Court meeting, where the posted notice of a "presentation by Commissioner Russ Molenaar" was not alleged not be adequate to address the matter he addressed.

Visiting Judge Chuck Miller wrote that the one-way dissemination of information cannot be called a deliberation and therefore no official meeting occurred. "This court concludes that under the Act as it applied on Aug. 12, 1999, the gathering of the quorum of the Hays County Commissioners Court at the Salt Lick Bar-B-Q wherein members of the court and staff disseminated information to those assembled was not a 'meeting' as contemplated by the Act. Thus, there was no statutory requirement for the Commissioners Court to post notice of the Salt Lick event."

As to Molenaar's presentation, the judge wrote that Molenaar left his commissioner's chair, went to the public podium, and addressed attacks made on the court by some citizens, accomplishments of the court, and his own integrity. Defendants contended this was protected speech under the First Amendment and the judge agreed.

Neither side was awarded attorneys fees in the matter, and court costs were assessed against plaintiffs HCWPP.

Judge Powers told In Fact Daily, "I'm glad it's over with. It's been going on a long time." In a press release issued yesterday, Powers attacked Foster and Jim Camp, communications director for the HCWPP. "My only disappointment is that Erin Foster, Jim Camp and the HCWPP were not required to pay the county's legal fees…This litigation was politically motivated from the start and the result of personal agendas on the part of Foster and Camp. Hays County taxpayers should not be required to foot the bill for the political objectives of a few, particularly those who use overly aggressive and unreasonable tactics." To In Fact Daily, Powers was much more conciliatory, saying, "Hopefully we can move forward in working with HCWPP to address some of their concerns." Powers said he has told at least one member of the HCWPP, "I'd be happy to work with you to discuss issues."

Foster tells In Fact Daily that HCWPP remains undaunted by the court's decision. "We were quoting Thomas Jefferson," she says. "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance." Foster says the lawsuit cost HCWPP a ballpark figure of about $5,000, although she wasn't sure of the total amount. She said it is being paid for through dues paid by members of the organization. "We actually raised $11,000 last year in about six months," Foster says.

She said the HCWPP's next regular board meeting is scheduled for May 12 and the board will decide whether to appeal the decision. Attorney Phil Durst of Austin-based Wiseman Durst & Owen, who represented HCWPP, could not be reached for comment yesterday. Foster said Durst will make a report to the board on whether an appeal could be fruitful.

"I'm not discouraged," Foster said. "I've been through this before with Austin Community College." As reported by In Fact Daily Aug. 19, 1999, after petitioning up and down Camp Ben McCollough Road (FM 1826) to rally opposition to building an ACC campus in the area, and seeing no impact from getting sign-carrying protesters to attend ACC board meetings, Foster wound up joining the Save Our Springs Alliance in litigation to stop that project. The case, which was also handled by Durst, went all the way to the Supreme Court and was decided in favor of the plaintiffs, Foster says.

Mitchell backs Thomas…Former Council Member Eric Mitchell is now on record supporting Senior Police Officer Danny Thomas in his bid to unseat Council Member Willie Lewis. That would be a sweet payback for Mitchell, because it was Lewis who in 1997 became the first challenger ever to defeat an incumbent minority council member on the Austin City Council. In the April issue of The Police Line, published by the Austin Police Association (APA), a letter from APA honorary member Mitchell exhorts APA members to contribute to their fellow officer's bid for office. "He needs each one of you to contribute $100 to his campaign, this would give him $100,000 and a real chance to win this election," Mitchell wrote. "Time is of the essence. Now is your chance to regain a voice on the council."

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