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Pressley campaign may have accepted illegal contributions

Tuesday, April 17, 2012 by Michael Kanin

Place 2 City Council candidate Laura Pressley listed seven business entities and an out-of-state political action committee on her 30-day campaign finance election filing. Though a handful of the entities may qualify as legal contributors, at least two, U.S. Foods and People’s Pharmacy, appear to violate Texas state prohibitions on corporate campaign contributions.


However, when contacted by In Fact Daily, U.S. Foods denied making any contributions to the Pressley campaign. Asked to clarify, Pressley said she got an in-kind contribution of $200 worth of hamburger meat for a fundraiser.


Other apparent corporate contributors contacted had not responded to In Fact Daily by late Monday.


Corporations that make illegal contributions may be charged with a third degree felony and their officers or agents may be subject to a fine of up to $10,000 and/or two to 10 years in prison. Candidates who take unlawful contributions from such corporations may also be charged with a third degree felony and face the same penalties if found guilty.


Another business contributor, Shady Seven, appears on Pressley’s list. Shady Seven is a Mexican restaurant that is planning to open on East Seventh Street In May, according to its website.  


The question of whether the out-of-state PAC contribution from the Amalgamated Transit Union is illegal is a bit trickier. For it to qualify as a legal contribution, paperwork describing the entity must be submitted along with other election filings. And, if the PAC in question accepts donations from any corporate entity, Texas candidates are barred from taking campaign contributions from the PAC.


When asked if she filed any of PAC related paperwork, Presley replied that she hadn’t. She added that she didn’t know if the transit PAC accepted corporate contributions. “That’s a good question,” she said.


Pressley is running against Council Member Mike Martinez. As chair of the Capital Metro board, Martinez has come in for harsh criticism from members of the ATU Local 1091, which represents bus drivers.


Attorney Jim Cousar was clear in his assessment of the PAC question. “You can’t just take money from an out-of-state PAC,” he told In Fact Daily. Cousar is not involved in the Place 2 race but has advised numerous candidates over the years about campaign law.


Pressley said that she first broached the question of who could contribute to her campaign with the Texas Ethics Commission before she began to take checks. She said that the commission referred her to City Code.


Pressley said City Code leaves room for her to accept donations from corporate entities. For proof, she cites the definitions section of the portion of the Austin City Code that governs campaign contributions. There, code defines a donor as “an individual, corporation, partnership, labor union, or labor organization, or any unincorporated association, firm, committee, club, or other organization or group of persons, including a political committee organized under the Texas Election Code, not limited to the definition in Section 1-1-2 (General Definitions) of the Code.”


Under Pressley’s interpretation of that paragraph, the inclusion of corporation in the definition leaves her in the clear. Pressley told In Fact Daily that she completed the financial forms on her own and did not consult any authority on the matter.


“I’ll be honest with you,” she says, “I am very anal retentive and I’ve tried to do what exactly is in the rules.”


Try, in this case, may not be quite enough. “If a Texas candidate accepts a contribution from a business corporation (that meets certain conditions)…that’s automatically an illegal contribution,” said Cousar.


Pressley could be in further trouble if any of the LLC’s listed on her financial report – which include her own Pure Rain – have any corporate members. The issue could also extend to the corporations themselves. According to Cousar, both the contributor and the candidate are subject to criminal liability, should they be guilty of violating election contribution rules.


Although the company was listed as a contributor, Noa Levy of Boutique Real Estate said her company did not make a contribution to Pressley. She said Pressley in fact paid rent. We apologize to Ms. Levy for the error.


Candidates have until the end of the filing period to correct illegal contributions. After the filing period ends, though a candidate could return the contribution, Texas law would still regard it as an accepted donation.


Assistant District Attorney Gregg Cox told In Fact Daily that his office hadn’t yet examined the matter.


After a reporter explained to the candidate that it was likely she had received illegal contributions, Pressley said, “We’ll just go ahead and refund it, if it’s the right thing to do.”

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