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Questions raised about legality of Tovo campaign email blast

Tuesday, May 10, 2011 by Michael Kanin

The Kathie Tovo campaign may have violated campaign finance laws when it helped former Save Town Lake Chairman Tom Cooke send out an email blast on Friday. The email, which was addressed to “Friends of Town Lake” and signed by Cooke, asked for support for Tovo in her run against Place 3 incumbent Randi Shade. It went out without a disclaimer that would have acknowledged the Tovo campaign’s connection to the document.


Tovo campaign manager Mark Yznaga told In Fact Daily that he didn’t know whether his organization had violated the law, but that they had contacted someone who might help them answer that question. He added that he had not seen the email before it went out, blaming a 21-year-old campaign worker who helped Cooke.


Meanwhile, a pro-Shade campaign robo-call from Mayor Lee Leffingwell also went out on Friday. In the call, Leffingwell’s pre-recorded message reminds voters that early voting is coming to an end, and asks them to “please go to the polls (and) cast your vote for my friend Randi Shade.” The Tovo campaign cited the lack of a disclaimer on that phone call as a possible violation.


Questions about the Cooke email began to surface Friday. In addition to concerns about the lack of a disclaimer, some email recipients wondered where Cooke got the list of emails he used to distribute his note.


“I don’t believe that the absence of a disclaimer on the Tovo email was a mistake,” Shade campaign manager Katherine Haenschen said. “I believe there was a deliberate omission of plainly required disclaimer language in order to make the email appear to be independent advocacy, rather than a paid communication by the Tovo campaign. This is the reason we have election laws.”


Attorney Chuck Herring was among the committed Shade supporters who received Cooke’s email. He summed up the issues in an electronic reply to Cooke. “I’m somewhat concerned with how you got my email address, and who paid for and sponsored your email,” he wrote.


Save Town Lake is prohibited by law from issuing any political endorsements because it is a non-profit organization.


Cooke’s email is careful to refrain from endorsing any candidate on behalf of Save Town Lake. Still, it seems to invoke that organization’s concerns. “As a neighborhood leader Kathie led the negotiations with the Hyatt Hotel on the lakefront for their planned expansion and succeeded in getting an agreement that respected the Waterfront Overlay,“ Cooke writes.


“Kathie is running against Council Member Randi Shade who has shown her disregard for the longstanding community desire to maintain the unique quality of the Lady Bird Lake corridor,” he later adds.


Roughly a year ago, Save Town Lake went to local political consulting firm GNI Strategies for some help with their electronic outreach. “We helped them with online advocacy,” GNI principal Will Ikard said. “Part of that was procuring a list of emails.”


Stephen Straus knows Shade through Harvard Business School alumni events that they both attended in Austin in the mid-to-late ’90s. Though he supports Shade’s campaign, he notes that he doesn’t “do anything political.”


Straus says that he’s “been getting Save Town Lake emails since 2009.” When he received Cooke’s email on Friday, he says that it came to an email address that he doesn’t normally use. He adds, however, that it is the same email address where he receives communications from Save Town Lake.


Dina Jackson also knows Shade personally. She says that her partner, who is on the Save Town Lake list, got Cooke’s email but that she did not. She thinks this is because she’s recently left the Save Town Lake list. “I personally didn’t get it because I just unsubscribed,” she said.


If the Save Town Lake email list is indeed the source of Cooke’s effort, it is possible that he purchased the list from his former organization. If the list wasn’t purchased, and Cooke did use it to send out his email, he could be accused of stealing from Save Town Lake.


Cooke did not return calls or an email looking for a comment.


Save Town Lake President Mike Hirsch, told in Fact Daily that he hadn’t seen the email. “I haven’t seen it, and I don’t know what’s in it,” he said. He noted that the email was “not an organizational endorsement” and that Cooke was “speaking as an individual.”


Hirsch added that the Save Town Lake board did not discuss the email, and that it wasn’t sanctioned by the organization.


The firm that Tovo’s campaign uses to send out its email blasts is Houston-based Net Victories. A generic message that offers email recipients an opportunity to remove themselves from an email list appeared at the bottom of Cooke’s message. It redirected users to a Net Victories web address.


Net Victories referred a call for comment to the Tovo campaign.


As for the Leffingwell message, Shade campaign manager Haenschen told In Fact Daily that she believes that her campaign did not violate any laws. “Everyone on our campaign knows and complies with election law,” she says. “Neither state or local election law requires that automated political calls include a disclaimer.”


This story was later changed to include the following information:

Tovo campaign consultant David Butts called In Fact Daily on Tuesday to let us know that the Shade campaign had indeed violated one law. Butts labeled the complaints traded between the two campaigns “petty stuff.” But he went on to say the robocall from Mayor Lee Leffingwell urging voters to vote for Shade did not include a phone number at the end of the message so that those receiving the call could complain if necessary. In response, Shade campaign manager Katherine Haenschen, said her campaign had indeed erred. “Yesterday the Tovo campaign wrongly suggested that our recent autocall required a disclaimer (naming the campaign).  However, Title II, Subchapter F, Sec. 55.127 of the Texas Utilities Code does require including a phone number.  To correct our mistake, we have decided to re-send our autocall from Mayor Leffingwell with a phone number included.  We apologize for the oversight.”

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