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Naishtat and Meeker’s bills tighten rules for ethics complaints

Wednesday, May 6, 2009 by Austin Monitor

Two ethics bills, spearheaded by former Council candidate Jason Meeker and sponsored by Rep. Elliott Naishtat, may impact future Austin city council campaigns. They aim to make it harder to file frivolous ethics complaints in the last days of the campaign.

Meeker, the communications director for Responsible Growth for Northcross, ran against Leffingwell in last year’s Council race. Meeker was burned by last-minute widely publicized ethics allegations filed by Mike Blizzard that criticized campaign ads run by his former treasurer, Rick Culleton.

Meeker always has claimed Culleton’s defamatory ads – self-funded and intended to unseat incumbents Jennifer Kim and Leffingwell — were Culleton’s own axe to grind and were created after Meeker replaced Culleton as treasurer, with Allandale Neighborhood Association president Allen McMurtry. Still, the last-minute nature of the ads did raise questions about Meeker’s role. Blizzard supported Leffingwell last year and supports him in his bid for Mayor also.

The charges against Meeker were never proven or disproven, because Blizzard never filled out the correct forms. “I filed the complaint and about three weeks later maybe I got this big packet in the mail (which included) a stack of forms they (Texas Ethics Commission) wanted filed instead,” Blizzard told In Fact Daily last night. “I spent hours on that complaint and I wasn’t willing to spend that many more hours on it. In my opinion the violations were just cut and dried.”

Meeker feels tarnished by a complaint that was never seriously filed. “I have no proof that Lee Leffingwell or Mark Nathan (Leffingwell’s consultant) had anything specific to do with the things that happened to me,” Meeker said. “Throughout the course of the campaign, however, whenever we were together, Leffingwell could always turn to me and say, ‘Here is my young opponent, who has an ethics complaint filed against him that could result in a misdemeanor or a felony.’ How do you counter that? There was a stark turn in the coverage after he said that. It was like I was seen as a crook.”

Needless to say, Leffingwell won his race handily. In the interim, however, Meeker began to think, and he approached Northcross Wal-Mart opponent Naishtat about his concerns about how complaints are filed with the Texas Ethics Commission.

Meeker told his story before a House committee, which unanimously approved the bills, HB 3216 and HB 3218. The full House has approved them.

The bills aim to stop frivolous ethic complaints. At the Texas Ethics Commission, all complaints must be filed on sworn documents to be considered by the agency.

A person could still give an unsworn complaint, but the bill would give them a deadline – 21 days – to fix the problem. If the filer missed the deadline, both sides would be notified that the complaint was dismissed.

A second bill would require the commission to immediately notify a candidate of any complaint – instead of the current five-day waiting period – in order to avoid any lag time in addressing complaints that might be filed in the crucial final days of the campaign.

The bills, both approved by the House and sent on to the Senate, will have no impact on this year’s city elections and do not really address whether a candidate can file erroneous charges against an opponent late in a campaign.

The legislation does not address complaints filed with Municipal Courts—such as the one Leffingwell filed on Monday against opponent and Council Member Brewster McCracken. (See In Fact Daily, May 5, 2009.) But it will be weeks before a court addresses the merits of that complaint also, leaving a cloud of suspicion over McCracken.

Asked whether he found it suspicious that a second Leffingwell opponent faced an ethical complaint, Meeker declined to address the specific complaint against McCracken. Instead, he spoke in generalities. Any timing between his bill’s passage and Leffingwell’s current run is coincidental, Meeker said.

“My bill concerns all the people of Texas,” Meeker said. “Anytime any complaint is lodged against a candidate, I’m incredibly suspicious of their motive, especially when an answer to the allegation cannot be reached before the election occurs.”

For his part, Leffingwell’s campaign manager, Mark Nathan, said Blizzard never worked for Leffingwell or played any role in Leffingwell’s campaign.  Any conclusion that Blizzard’s complaint was tied to Leffingwell would be untrue, Nathan said.

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